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Listen, Amplify, Include: Leadership for the Modern Age

An interview with

This piece is the fourth in a weeklong series on the workplace of the future. You can read the previous pieces here, here and here.

Retired Gen. Martin Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Berkeley professor Ori Brafman come from very different backgrounds. One is a 41-year veteran of the U.S. military, the other a 41-year-old liberal academic. But they share a common passion: helping people develop new forms of leadership for the modern age. In their book, Radical Inclusion: What the Post-9/11 World Should Have Taught Us about Leadership, Mr. Brafman and Mr. Dempsey share their perspectives on how leaders in the corporate and public sectors can adapt their leadership style to a radically different environment.

The two first met in 2009 to talk about Mr. Brafman’s book The Starfish and the Spider, which examines the power of so-called “leaderless organizations.” The general, and the military as a whole, had decided it needed a new approach—one of decentralized decision-making where more authority is put in the hands of those closest to the action—and Mr. Brafman’s book provided a source of inspiration on how that might be achieved. Ten years later, and with “mission command,” the military’s embodiment of the concept, firmly embedded in Army doctrine, their unlikely relationship has continued, driven by a heightened sense of urgency that today’s environment calls for a different leadership response—one of radical inclusion.

David Gillespie, a partner in Oliver Wyman’s Organizational Effectiveness practice who leads the firm’s work on what’s known as “scaled agility,” talked with them recently to hear how their insights apply to the business world. What follows has been edited for length and clarity.

Mr. Gillespie: You both have very different backgrounds. What brought you together?

Mr. Dempsey: In my role as commander of the Army’s training and doctrine command, I visited Afghanistan and found that we were doing some things quite well and others not so well. One thing we weren’t doing well was what Ori had written about in The Starfish and the Spider: We had managed to decentralize our operations, but at the strategic level we were failing to harvest the knowledge that existed at the edge. So I called Ori, told him I’d read his book, and asked him to come and visit so I could explore the possibility of incorporating his thoughts into our curriculum, especially for senior leaders. And as the story goes, he came in the door wondering what to make of this four-star general business.

Mr. Brafman: This is one of the last people in the world I’d have a conversation with let alone a friendship or writing a book with him. My background was as a peace and conflict studies undergrad followed by my time in the business world. I didn’t even know what to call him. But he posed a very interesting question—where you have this very large organization, the U.S. Army, trying to adapt and shift to an environment that increasingly demands agility.

Mr. Gillespie: A central point in the book is that leaders need to listen, amplify, and include. What makes those three elements of leadership so critical?

Mr. Dempsey: In this new world, a lot of people are competing for the trust and confidence of your workforce. It’s not a level playing field. When your workers are not with you, they’re being influenced by a myriad other folks through social media and any number of other ways. And at the same time, the digital echo is making it hard for them to know what’s true and what’s not. If you’re in this competition and you want to build a sense of belonging, then it starts with being willing to listen—which is not a typical leadership trait. You know, we’re all busy people. We feel we really only have time to give instructions and then hope like hell that they’re implemented.

There’s this idea that the way you’ve lived is slipping away. And the instinct is to try to gain more control. It’s exactly the wrong thing to do.

So we say, flip it. The busier you are, the more you’ve got to listen. You listen to learn. Once you learn, you amplify the best ideas. And in the process you are as inclusive as possible for two reasons. One, you learn something from everybody. And two, if your inclusiveness persuades your workforce to take ownership of whatever solution you eventually decide upon, there’s a chance that is actually going to be implemented.

Mr. Brafman: I don’t think anyone would deny that the world has changed dramatically in the post-9/11 period. Business, government, international relations—even our sense of national identity—have all been challenged by new ways of acting and relating. Since 2009—when General Dempsey and I first met—we’ve seen the growth of ubiquitous access to data and its unexpected costs: When everyone can be a reporter and publisher, it has become increasingly difficult to know what’s true and what’s not.

Mr. Gillespie: In the book, you describe the benefits of concentrating the what while distributing the how—which is the core of the Army’s mission command philosophy. Do you have any advice for people about how to do that?

Mr. Dempsey: What we’re really talking about is the idea of co-creating context, learning from the edge and relying on your employees to help you understand the context of your decisions. I can tell you from personal experience that when we make decisions in places like Afghanistan or Syria or Iraq, they succeed or fail based on how much we knew about the context before we made the decision. We had some brilliant ideas about resolving serious situations but neglected the context in which they would be carried out, and therefore failed. And conversely, whenever we’ve paid attention to the context of a decision that’s made in a place like Afghanistan, it’s generally worked out well.

Of course, if you’re going to reach out to your workforce inclusively, it’s going to take a little longer. So we try to balance that with a bias for action. You shouldn’t wait for that one last exquisite piece of information. You have a network of empowered employees out there to help you understand what you’ve done and then act again. And then you work your way toward an optimum solution in aggregate.

Remember, in this world we’re talking about, people, including leaders, often feel like they’re losing something. Politicians are fearmongering, and there’s this idea that your culture or your religion or the way you’ve lived is slipping away. And the instinct is to try to gain more control. It’s exactly the wrong thing to do. It leads to suboptimal, expensive, ill-advised solutions that just won’t endure.

Mr. Brafman: How do you do that? When we talk about inclusion, people think we mean diversity. Now, diversity of all sorts is very important, but General Dempsey is talking about something different: creating a sense of belonging in your organization. Agility is not necessarily something that you need to convert your company to. Rather, agility already exists in a company. And you can amplify the ability and the potential of agility in your firm by loosening your grip and control. That unleashes an agility that’s ready to go.

Mr. Dempsey: Ori likes to say that no one ever got fired for failing to be innovative. But no one’s ever been innovative if they didn’t trust that they had the ability to try. I come from what was the most hierarchical institution on the planet. I’ve been in the big board room and seen the man or the woman at the head of the table walk in and say, “Here’s what I think. What do you guys think?” And you’re dead at that point, because once the four-star opines about what he or she thinks, the rest of us in the room don’t generally feel like we’re supposed to be in the business of contradicting them. On the other hand, I’ve been in the room with a four-star, the head of the table, who says. “This is really complicated. Let me get some thoughts about this.” And it always works out better that way.

Gen. Martin Dempsey

Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

GEN(R) Martin Dempsey recently retired after 41 years in the Army, ending his military service as the nation’s highest-ranking officer and military adviser to the president of the United States. As a lifelong practitioner of leadership, he has been recognized at home and abroad, including being named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential World Leaders in 2015 and being inducted as a Knight of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 2016. General Dempsey currently teaches public policy and leadership at Duke University, serves as chairman of USA Basketball, and is a best-selling author.

Ori Brafman

Lecturer at University of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business

Ori Brafman is a multiple New York Times bestselling author. He specializes in organizational culture, employee engagement, business transformation, leadership, and emerging technologies. He is founder and president of Starfish Leadership and co-founder of the Fully Charged Institute, which combines his work with that of Tom Rath. He is a distinguished teaching fellow at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business focusing on improvisational leadership, data science, and artificial intelligence. Brafman has advised all branches of the U.S. military, the Obama White House, the National Academy of Sciences, Google, Microsoft, Cisco, NATO, and YPO, among others.

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