The first time Ori Brafman met Martin Dempsey, the author and leadership adviser found himself on the four-star general’s office computer pulling up images of the Burning Man festival — the event in the Nevada desert each summer known for its barely clothed, substance-laden, futurist tech-punk atmosphere.
It was 2009, amid the continued spread of extremist Islamic militant groups, and Dempsey — who was in charge of training and doctrine command for the U.S. Army at the time — had called Brafman, the author of a widely read 2006 book called The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, for a meeting. A favourite of the Tea Party movement, Brafman’s book examines networked, decentralized organizations such as al-Qaida, Wikipedia and, yes, Burning Man, which thrive despite not having traditional leader-driven hierarchies.
“I’m like ‘What in the world have we gotten ourselves into?’ ” Dempsey recalled, laughing, during a phone interview. “I didn’t know what Burning Man was. I’m not sure I want to know now.”
But the meeting kicked off a years-long odd-couple friendship and collaboration that recently produced Dempsey’s first book about leadership, Radical Inclusion: What 9/11 Should have Taught Us About Leadership, which he and Brafman co-authored. They call themselves “the General and the guru.”
“I took a shot at a book prior to this one, but when we went to the big four publishers they weren’t interested,” Dempsey said, saying they preferred a “kiss-and-tell book about President Obama” he had no interest in writing.
The duo’s book argues that the nature of power is changing, making it harder than ever for leaders to win the trust and confidence of the people they lead, and that in response leaders need to be more inclusive, relinquish more control and focus more on narratives during a time in which the digital world has eroded many people’s understanding of the truth. (The title is also one of Burning Man’s “10 Principles;” Brafman says that while he thinks it’s “definitely a nod” to the event, it was also meant to be provocative.)
Brafman, a vegan San Francisco-based adviser to corporations who majored in peace and conflict studies at the University of California-Berkeley and started a nonprofit aimed at CEO networks for international peace, is as surprised as anyone by his partnership with the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who commanded the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad, served as acting commander of U.S. Central Command and the Army’s 37th chief of staff.
“The last person I ever thought I’d write a book with was the former head of the U.S. military,” Brafman said. “One of my first questions [to Dempsey] was ‘Is there a five-star general?’ ”
Dempsey brought Brafman in to help the U.S. Army think and operate more like a networked organization. “We’d done a great job of pushing capability and responsibility to the edge, but we hadn’t done as a good a job at harvesting the knowledge back,” Dempsey said. Brafman came in and led senior leadership development exercises with generals as well as seminars and symposiums for mid-level officers. He also helped Dempsey rethink the description of one of the Army’s “warfighting functions.”
“Ori challenged me on the idea of ‘command and control’,” Dempsey said, saying they revamped the description as “mission command.”
“Think of it this way,” he said, “We centralize the ‘what’ — what are we trying to accomplish — but we decentralize the ‘how’,” giving more responsibility to lower-ranking officers. Brafman went on to work with each branch of the U.S. military.
“Radical Inclusion” is aimed at a business audience, but Brafman and Dempsey are not talking about the kind of diversity and inclusion initiatives that many companies are fond of promoting. Rather, the term is used to describe the leadership style needed in an era of what they call the “digital echo,” when technology is helping information pass between people ever more quickly but also helping it become more distorted in the process.
“We think inclusion is about creating a sense of belonging, and it’s a leader’s job to translate an organizational mission — whether a military campaign or a marketing campaign,” Brafman said. “People have to have a sense that their participation matters, and matters to the overall success of the organization.”
The book discusses why narratives matter and why leaders can’t control as much, and then lays out six principles for modelling this style of leadership, such as helping teams to create memories to foster a sense of belonging.
With its focus on inclusivity and collaboration, the book at times reads like a counterpoint to President Donald Trump’s White House, which has been described as rife with warring factions and increasingly relying on the president’s gut instincts rather than his advisers. “Solving our problem with an emphasis on exclusion, jealously husbanding power and aspiring to greater control is producing sub-optimal, fragile and costly outcomes,” the two write in the book’s preface.
But the authors said the timing was not intentional — the book was conceived and begun well before Trump announced his candidacy — and even if some have asked them if the book was written to troll Trump, it wasn’t. Brafman, who was born in Israel but grew up in Texas, said he found it “very, very worrisome” that a book about inclusion was seen as being at odds with the U.S. president, but said Trump “has recognized a different, changing politics,” one where “we’ve moved away from the age of debate, where a debate is either right or wrong, to the age of narratives,” which are judged “by whether they’re boring or interesting.”
Dempsey, meanwhile, declined when asked to evaluate the president’s leadership against the “instincts” described in the book, saying that as a military member, “even in retirement, part of the responsibility is that we’re seen as nonpartisan, and I take that responsibility very seriously.” He said “I have had great respect for the presidents I’ve served,” but that “none of them have had every single one” of the “instincts” and leadership traits described in the book.
That doesn’t mean the two don’t hope their message overall isn’t heard by the country’s political leaders on both sides of the aisle.
“If we continue down a path politically where the party in power acts exclusively in their interest and can’t find a way or doesn’t have an instinct to act inclusively,” Dempsey said, “than we will end up with sub-optimal solutions to very complex problems.”