BRINK | May 3, 2018
Interview with David Gillespie

An interview with Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff & Lecturer at University of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business

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.