#Reviewing Radical Inclusion

Radical Inclusion: What the Post-9/11 World Should Have Taught Us About Leadership. GEN(R) Martin Dempsey and Ori Brafman. Berkeley, CA: Missionday, 2018.

We live in a world driven by our digital existence, one that can rapidly spin out of our control before we know it. Every word we tweet, every picture we post, every relationship we forge, all become part of a larger archive of our data-driven lives. They also become part of a greater narrative, fodder for those who would use them to fracture trust and further drive us. Today, the speed and pace of information flow only intensifies scrutiny and aggravates growing divisions to a point that real-life relationships often fall apart in the wake of digital disagreements.

The challenges of living at the speed of the digital narrative and leading those who do, and of countering the vast proliferation of disinformation, only grows in intensity and complexity given today’s paradigms. So how do you build and, just as importantly, maintain the trust and confidence of those you lead, creating and nurturing an environment that includes, rather than excludes, in a seemingly never-ceasing battle for control of information flow? The answer lies in the message, in how people who lead use it to bring others together rather than push them apart. In their book Radical Inclusion, GEN(R) Martin Dempsey and Ori Brafman chart a framework to counter the challenges of life in the digital age. Using new concepts paired with tried and true leadership methods, the authors package decades of intellectual exploration and practical experience into an easy to read manualand show us all how the unlikely pairing of an activist and a four-star general can create a winning leadership dynamic.

The Digital Echo: Leading Through Countering Narratives

Early in their book, Dempsey and Brafman set the stage for the concepts they advance in Part 1, conveniently titled “The Operating Environment,” an opening salvo in a text that ultimately leans heavily on lessons drawn from Dempsey’s 41 years of Army service.[1] Despite the strong influence of the general’s military career throughout the book, the beginning sections instead leverage Brafman’s younger days to advance the pair’s emerging concepts. Integral to the theme of the book is the weight of what Dempsey and Brafman term the digital echo. This phenomenon is so prevalent in the era of social media, that it has the power to control our information exchange without our awareness. Unfortunately, this means people are often unable to mitigate its effects and in some cases, may resort to extreme measures in response to stories that confirm their worst biases. What the authors term The Power of the Narrative comes in here: “In the absence of verifiable truth, competing narratives will vie for allegiance.”[2] Beginning with Brafman’s time as a vegan activist at the University of California-Berkeley, as well as Dempsey’s interactions with President Obama in the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, the book paints the picture of the importance of narratives and their role in shaping perceptions of organizations and individuals alike. With this stage set, the authors advance their titular concept, how Radical Inclusion can help win the battle of the narrative for companies and organizations.

The Power of Purpose and Meaning: Connecting Everyone to the Mission

The release of this book comes at a time when seemingly every military and government organization is trying to innovate, trying to do more with less, all while maintaining our nation’s shrinking competitive advantages in technological and military capabilities. With this context in mind, the clarion call Secretary of Defense James Mattis sent during his remarks to accompany the release of the National Defense Strategy comes to mind:“We have no room for complacency, and history makes clear that America has no preordained right to victory on the battlefield.”[3] Mattis’s quote seemed to be, at least in part, a way for the Department to reiterate the urgency of their call, the gravity of the greater geopolitical situation, and the importance of all their contributions, positive or otherwise, to America’s defense. As Dempsey and Brafman explain, the power of inclusion comes from three things: participation, personalization, and purpose.[4]

The book describes participation through the anecdote of GEN Dempsey’s 2009 encounter with an infantry captain in Afghanistan. Central to this chance meeting was the young officer’s description of the decentralized nature of the enemy they were fightinghis understanding of the challenge inspired by Brafman’s The Starfish and the Spider, a book that quickly made its way to Dempsey’s mandatory reading list when he commanded the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command. More importantly though, was the idea that one officer, operating from a remote mountain outpost thousands of miles away from Dempsey’s four-star headquarters, was part of an environment and culture where he could participate, and thus influence the direction of how the Army understood, and trained for, the enemy it faced in Afghanistan. Dempsey and Brafman stress the need for leaders at all levels to cultivate an environment of participation in which “they need not be a part of every meeting,” but are still able to impact the organization’s goals.[5]

Both military units and large corporations, if nothing else, share one particular characteristic in commonthey are organizations made up of humans with unique individual beliefs, backgrounds, perspectives, and stories. Whether it’s the National Defense Strategy or Amazon’s next corporate move, the ways to achieve strategic objectives must ultimately be carried out by people. In describing personalization and purpose, Dempsey and Brafman remind readers that the key to inclusion is connecting the what and the how, along with the why.

Leadership Principles for Inclusion

Where Radical Inclusion really begins to tie the lessons together is through a series of six chapters on Dempsey’s leadership principlesGive Them Memories; Make It Matter; Learn to Imagine; Develop a Bias for Action; Co-Create Context; and Relinquish Control to Build and Sustain Power. Dempsey illustrates these principles through practical, real-life examples from his decades of military and leadership experience to drive home their importance and applicability for leaders of every organization. For example, many of the book’s readers will have already heard the story of Dempsey’s stack of laminated cards in the cigar box etched with the words “Make it Matter,” but the impact of its retelling in Radical Inclusion brings new light to the importance of purpose in work and in leadership, and the authors remind us that it is “a phrase that can and should hold meaning in all our lives, regardless of occupation or status.”[6] While not every anecdote has the somber impact of Make it Matter, the stories used to illustrate these principles are nonetheless compelling.

Our world of increasingly louder digital echoes continues to grow in complexity, and the speed of change only gets faster. Leaders, military or civilian alike, must arm themselves with the tools to guide themselves and those they lead through an increasingly volatile and uncertain world. Radical Inclusion is a worthy addition to the library of a leader looking for ways to heed the call. From a lifetime of anecdotes, to the hand-written notes on four-star letterhead to those—including myself—who pre-ordered the book, the lessons in inclusive leadership are practical, easily translatable for military or civilian application, and grounded in the real-life experience of two notable—though admittedly quite different—leadership experts. Admittedly, the authors were known quantities for this reviewer going into the book. I had previously read The Starfish and the Spider, and heard Brafman speak at a DEFx Conference a few years back. Moreover,  I knew of Dempsey’s leadership reputation when my division replaced his in Baghdad in 2004. My expectations for this book were high. The invaluable lessons in this text only confirmed what I thought I knew about the two. What Dempsey and Brafman bring to the pages of this short, yet enduring book will help dampen the volume of the noise of the world, bring clarity to the fog of the digital battlefield, increase our trust for each other, and ultimately help us all be more inclusive leaders.

Steven L. Foster is a Senior Editor at The Strategy Bridge and an officer in the U.S. Army. He holds a Master of Public Policy with emphasis in National Security Policy from George Mason University. Follow Steve on Twitter at @slfoster22. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: General Martin Dempsey as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (AP)


[1] Dempsey, Martin and Brafman, Ori, “Radical Inclusion: What the Post 9/11 World Should Have Taught Us About Leadership,” Missionday, 2018, 1.

[2] Ibid, 14.

[3] “Remarks by Secretary Mattis on the National Defense Strategy.” n.d. Accessed May 7, 2018. https://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/1420042/remarks-by-secretary-mattis-on-the-national-defense-strategy/.

[4] Ibid, 37.

[5] Ibid, 51.

[6] Ibid, 92