Innovative thinking and action arise from friction and heat.  Where things are stable, predictable, and known, the expected tends to pop up; but opportunity tends to reside in the center of conflict and uncertainty.  That is why we study and try to understand the critical relationship between chaos and innovative leadership.  And who better to speak to innovating inside of chaos than a Navy Seal?

Last week in Cupertino, I sat down with Navy Seal Bob Schoulz to get his perspective on “leading in chaos.”   Bob has an undergraduate degree in Philosophy from Stanford and an MA in National Security Affairs from the Naval War College, where he also served on the faculty as the first chair for Special Operations.  His naval career spanned 30 years, and many overseas assignments.  In his long, challenging and high-achieving life, he’s seen more than his share of “chaos opportunities.”

Our conversation ranged from combat, to leadership, to Aristotle, to human happiness.  But underneath it all was a constant theme, important to anyone who aims to lead innovative cultures:  Expect chaos, be ready for chaos, and learn to lead in chaos.  Here are a few highlights of that conversation.

HENRY:  You talk a lot about  ”innovating in chaos” as a key leadership requirement to be a Navy SEAL.  Just what does that really mean?

BOB:  The innovation leadership that is needed in combat by Navy SEALS and others is not unlike the innovation that is needed on the field in any sport when the game plan goes awry.  How well the team innovates when they’re in trouble is largely a function of HOW the team has trained together – how well and how hard, and how creatively.

Organizational innovation, on the other hand, is a different matter entirely, and requires leaders who foster idealism and thinking beyond the boundaries of their own comfort zone. People have to trust their leader to be willing to go there.  That’s the lesson of the SEALS . . . when things appear to be out of control, look for the patterns and opportunities; then lead others to those opportunities.

HENRY:  It’s kind of a well-worn cliché to compare combat and business, but let’s go there anyway.   What parallels do you see between the chaos of combat and the chaos of business and competitive innovation environments?

BOB:   There are many parallels.  WWI gives us a great example of a significant technical or strategic change that simply went unrecognized by leadership.  Remember the generals who sent their men charging 19th-century style into machine gun nests?  They failed as leaders to strike a balance between applying lessons from the past that had worked, with a creative insight into how this battle, this enemy, this war is different; what they missed was the necessity of challenging orthodoxy. That’s where business and organizational leaders tend to fail as well.

I really think this is kind of a key thing: As a leader, of course you want to have in place a strong and pervasive skill set and plan that addresses current circumstances; but you must also cultivate a readiness to quickly change and adapt your thinking when it’s not working.  That’s what the SEALS and other innovative leaders do very, very well.

HENRY:  Given your experience and your expertise in both chaos and leadership, what do you see as the biggest impediment to successfully innovating in chaos?

BOB:  Chaos is uncomfortable.  We instinctively try to avoid it, deflect it or ignore it.  As a consequence we tend to create and settle into well-ordered environments where we are comfortable, where things are predictable and efficient.  Then, when outside forces impose change on our nice, comfortable systems, we scream and rebel.  We instinctively work hard to preserve our “old order.”   And that’s where we miss the greatest opportunities for innovation and discovery.

I think we could all benefit from leadership — our own and others — that is inclined to slow down, step off the treadmill and literally create artificial chaos to keep people from getting too comfortable.  Doing this helps prepare an organization to meet chaos head on and proactively find opportunities, rather than hiding in the old order.

HENRY:  Your undergraduate degree is in philosophy and you talk a lot about how your study of the humanities was a big part of your preparation for your personal leadership development. How do you think the study of philosophy, literature,  and history contribute to leadership development, particularly with respect to chaos and innovation?

BOB:  So much of leadership discussion is heavily focused on rationality, practicality, the ‘head’ aspect of the head-heart equation.  These practical and systems approaches toward influencing people to work together to achieve common goals are certainly important, but so is bringing the heart into the equation — feeling, empathy, and intuition.  Cold logic can lead people down paths toward solutions that make the heart kick and scream NO!

The humanities give us stories that can help us look at our lives through other people’s lives.  And I think that makes us better able to lead, better able to be “in chaos,” better able to keep our bearings.  Knowledge serves cleverness more than wisdom, and our culture often values cleverness more than wisdom.  But the true leader values the latter . . . wisdom.  And my experience suggests this can come from an immersion in the Humanities.

HENRY:   Surely chaotic conditions are the best place for mistakes.  What do you see as the single biggest mistake to be made, either as an organization or as an individual?

BOB:  When you don’t know what to do, sometimes the best thing to do, at least initially, is nothing . . . as I say:  ”Stop and smoke a cigarette.”   We tend to forget that and look for “something” to do, anything at all, to respond, when in fact the best response to chaos – at least initially — is often watch and think. You can be overwhelmed with fear, anxiety, and anger, but as a leader you need to step back and understand the situation and try to find the patterns in the chaos; remember, it is only chaos because we haven’t yet seen or found the patterns.

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