The Timelessness of Leadership and Innovation

“You think we choose to be born?”

President Abraham Lincoln, in the 2012 film bearing his name, posed this question to a military officer. “Are we fitted to the times we’re born into?” he continued. The officer seemed a bit perplexed by the questions, but offered an answer:  “I don't know about myself. You may be, sir. Fitted.”

Whether we’re “fitted” to our times is still a relevant question, but it implies a level of stability that no longer exists. We live in an era of innovation, when change is so fast that we can assume it’s the norm. More important than whether we are fitted to our times is whether we are capable of fitting ourselves to a changing world. And just as important, what is the role of leadership in the process?

A Better Self

150 years after Lincoln, a leading scholar in the Air Force is proposing an answer to whether we can fit ourselves to our times. In doing so, he is providing a new definition of leadership. Dr. Jeffrey Smith, a retired Air Force Colonel and the Executive Director of the Air Force’s Profession of Arms Center of Excellence (PACE), argues that the purpose of leadership is to help others “achieve a better future self.” Achieving this purpose requires that leaders understand why humans behave the way they do.

When I first heard Dr. Smith speak, he was addressing a room filled with Air Force officers. I thought it was odd that his definition of leadership made no reference to what the Air Force does—no mention of planes, missiles, or satellites. Instead, his definition depended entirely on an immutable human desire:  the will to improve.

Further, Smith’s advice on leadership made no mention of things such as organizational theory, charisma, or how to communicate well. Not that those are irrelevant, but Smith argues that helping others improve first requires understanding the affective domain of human behavior.[1] Leaders should study the collection of desires and motivations that consciously and (more often) unconsciously guide our actions. Leaders should especially understand how people react to positions of power, or how humans are naturally self-interested yet capable of deep commitment to a group. But most importantly, leaders should understand the motivational power of working toward a higher purpose. “Know thyself” (and others) is the first command of leadership.

Smith is based near Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, the home of Air Force basic military training. Every Airman who enlists passes through Lackland on their way to the Air Force, and Smith has observed that these Airmen are looking for something more than a job. They are looking for a purpose. The purpose common to all of them, regardless of personal background or aspiration, is to be a better person tomorrow than they are today. Smith argues that Air Force leaders should redefine how they think about these Airmen. Rather than seeing basic trainees as future intelligence analysts, mechanics, or military police, leaders should see Airmen as people whose first desire is a “better future self.”[2]

Leadership as Innovation

Redefining how we think about people and their motivations is also the key to innovation in the 21st century. Innovation begins with a desire to improve, to make our organizations or our products better. Getting better at innovation requires an understanding of human behavior and, just as important, what motivates us to resist innovation. An understanding, for instance, of our innate loyalty to groups as a barrier to innovation. Seeing the world in terms of groups—our units, teams, military services—means that when a good idea comes from outside the group we tend to resist. Only when we understand such basic motivations can we engineer environments that are more favorable to innovation.

The purpose of leadership and the purpose of innovation are the same. We have an innate desire to get better. The obstacles to good leadership and innovation are also the same. Our natural wiring, if placed in the wrong environment, can get in the way of improvement. Despite a desire to get better, individuals and organizations have a tendency to fall into habits that lead to stasis.[3]

Innovation and leadership converge on this point: crafting environments and cultures in which the desire to improve outweighs the desire to stick with old habits. Because innovation and leadership have this in common, leaders shouldn’t think of innovation as something they do in addition to their real jobs. Innovation is leadership.

Leaders and innovators have the same answer to Lincoln’s initial question of “fit.” We want to fit ourselves to our times because of our innate drive to improve. But, actually doing the fitting—understanding what drives our behavior—is an uphill climb. We hold special places in history for men like Lincoln because he was able to make the climb, understanding both what the country wanted to achieve and how human nature limited achieving it.

One big difference between Lincoln’s time and our own, however, is that today we have tools that make it easier to understand human nature. The affective domain driving our behavior is coming into view through the study of behavioral psychology, and it doesn't take a PhD to profit from the study. Books such as Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness and Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions are entertaining and full of useful information...and Smith’s forthcoming Thinkenomics will no doubt fit that mold as well.

The remaining task, though, is defining the study of human behavior as not just the realm of psychologists, but as the essence of leadership and innovation. The challenge is to make “know thyself” (and others) more than ancient advice, but words that all leaders and innovators live by.

Brad DeWees is a Tactical Air Control Party officer and an instructor in the United States Air Force Academy’s Department of Political Science. He teaches courses on American government and “Innovation in Government.” The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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[1] Examples of Smith’s writings on the importance of a leader understanding the affective domain can be found here: Profession of Arms Center of Excellence (PACE) Essays, as well as in this essay for The Strategy Bridge: “The Heart of #Leadership”.

[2] In his role with PACE, Dr. Smith regularly gives presentations to Air Force units and leadership. In those presentations he uses the phrase “better future self” to summarize the motivations of Airmen and the goal of leadership. Reference material and contact information for the presentation can be found here: PACE homepage.

[3] The idea of stasis, as it applies to governments and government bureaucracies, is developed by Francis Fukuyama in Political Order and Political Decay. A summary of that book can be found in “America in Decay: The Sources of Political Dysfunction” or “The Rise and Fall of the U.S. Government.”