April 6, 2012
Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses Yearning to Breathe Free

Give me your thinkers.

What Emma Lazarus did with her sonnet, “The New Colossus,” we desperately need to do with our thinkers. Extend an open hand and welcome them into the fold. Give them refuge from the storm.

You see, we’re at a familiar crossroads. Not yet in crisis, but close. Some would call it a Tipping Point, while others might note that it is simply a turning point where our decisions take on historical significance. We’ve been here before, but institutional memory typically fails us in these times.

The last time we stood at this intersection, the dust and oil fires of Operation DESERT STORM were fading. We were at the dawn of a new age, looking to reap the benefits of a “peace dividend” as the colossus that was the Soviet Union crumbled around us. Then, the Pentagon slashed deep into the military ranks to reshape the force for the certainty that a new world order offered.

We thought then that we were the New Colossus. Some would say we weathered the storm of our shortsightedness quite well. But too many today cite an America in decline to ignore the fact that when we needed our deepest thinkers the most, we left many of them to survive the storm on their own. They were different. Not like the rest of us. They made us uncomfortable. We left many of them out in the cold. That was then, this is now.

Yesterday, two things happened to remind me of how much we have yet to learn. First, Peter Munson posted a touchstone blog on Small Wars Journal entitled “The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers” by Ben Kohlmann. That single blog entry was a call to action, to put it mildly. At a time when we should be leveraging our deep thinkers, we are on the verge of pushing them into the corner when we need them most. Those thinkers are more important to our future now than ever. Second, I engaged in a dialog with a group of my peers who were more concerned with preserving the status quo than opening their minds to a much-needed dose of “disruptive thought.” As a strategist – where high-order critical thought is a valued commodity – I was as disappointed as I was disturbed. Are we so afraid of change that we reject any ideas not our own? Are we that wedded to the status quo? Why are we so willing to stifle fresh ideas and alternative perspectives?

So, as we approach this crossroads, this historical inflection point, we have two choices: one, embrace the disruptive thinkers; or two, push them aside and weather the storm with the “yes men” who seem so content to genuflect at the altar of the status quo. You see, real change is top-driven, but fueled from below. Separating those two layers is a filter that, more often than not, ultimately shapes the course and speed of change. That filtering layer – where you will generally find seasoned O-5s and O-6s – is where ideas either flourish, or are lured into a cul-de-sac and slowly strangled to death. It really is that simple.

Choose your filter, but choose wisely. Who we surround ourselves with during this time is at least as important as who we choose to exclude. If we are to achieve the type of institutional change necessary to transform for the future, we must embrace the disruptive thinkers. We must open our minds to them and allow them to breathe free. This isn’t heresy, it is an absolutism. Or twenty years from now, people who look a lot like us will glance around and utter those fateful words: “I never saw that coming.”

Give me your thinkers. The New Colossus awaits.

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