Listen to many senior leaders in both the civilian and military sectors today, and it becomes apparent that there is no shortage of good ideas. Indeed, with austerity and sequestration the new reality, the lack of funds requires creativity. However, far too many fail to take personal responsibility by citing a vague “we should” mantra instead of the more powerful—and personally accountable—“I will.”
I recently had the chance to visit with a woman who attended the International 11.5 Davos Conference. At this gathering of the world’s luminaries, she somehow had made her way into the front row of the proceedings, from where she watched high-ranking government officials from around the world wax eloquent about solving global problems: “We should fix poverty by doing… ,” and so forth. Fed up with the use of this term, she got hold of a microphone during the question-and-answer session and simply said, “I’d really like to see the conversation move from one of ‘we should’ to one of ‘I will’ if you are truly serious about this.”
The crowd was stunned, and silence met her observation from the dais. This, however, was short-lived. The speakers recognized the importance of her words, and the conference took on a new tone following her request.
On a much smaller scale, this mantra has infused many of my peers in the junior ranks. They hear senior leaders asking for solutions, and they take it upon themselves to execute real change. A close friend of mine once said, “Execution is the new innovation,” and I believe this is a profound statement. Good ideas are a dime a dozen, but what sets the doers apart from dreamers are those who actually are able to push an idea through to reality despite the obstacles.
Lt. Darryl Diptee, USN, has heard senators and four-star officers say, “We should find a way to minimize suicides in the military.” He responded by saying, “I will create an app to do this.” Every spare moment of the past four months have been filled with his work to refine his idea—and pouring thousands of dollars of his own money into creating an interactive and easily accessible mobile app that gets to the heart of mental health issues. He has a full-time job with the Navy, but he is focused on taking personal responsibility for creating a solution. He recently had a meeting with the master chief petty officer of the Navy, who enthusiastically supported his proposal.
Lt. Dave Nobles, USN, heard senior officers say, “We should create a better way to get ideas from sailors.” He responded by saying, “I will create the ATHENA program.” With the enthusiastic support of his commanding officer, Cmdr. Rich LeBron, USN, of the USS Benfold, Lt. Nobles created a program that allows sailors to pitch ideas in a live setting, with the crew voting on the best ones. The winners are given the William Sims Award for Intellectual Courage and empowered with time and support to execute their ideas within their normal duties. Lt. Nobles is spreading the concept to other ships on the West Coast.
Capt. Anthony Hatala, USMC, heard friends in the services say, “We should have a place where military innovators can come together over a weekend.” He, along with a few others, said, “I will create the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum and host just such an event at the University of Chicago.” Ten junior officers from across the services staff the board of directors, and they are creating a first-of-its-kind national event focused on entrepreneurship in a bureaucracy—getting speakers, tackling ideas and advocating for change in the midst of senior flag officers. This independent, junior-officer-run event is happening October 12-14, and it could usher in a new era of emerging leader collaborative innovation.
By saying “I will,” a person establishes a level of personal accountability. People hear that person, and then they implicitly expect the individual to actually follow through. Undertaking any endeavor always entails the possibility of failure; and in a no-defect environment, this can be a scary prospect—but also a motivating one. In contrast, many times the words “we should” are a convenient cover for not caring enough about a particular issue to take the time and effort to see it through to reality.
Next time you hear yourself saying, “We should,” stop a moment and consider what would change if you replaced it with, “I will.” Anybody can tell someone else what should be their priority, but true and lasting change only occurs when we take it upon ourselves to make the change we wish to see—and do something about it.
Lt. Ben Kohlmann, USN, is an F/A-18 instructor pilot serving in the Innovation and Concepts Department at the Naval Warfare Development Command, part of the Chief of Naval Operations’ Rapid Innovation Cell. He is the founder of Disruptive Thinkers, an organization devoted to bringing innovative military personnel together with civilian entrepreneurs. The views expressed in this column are his own and not necessarily those of the U.S. Navy or of SIGNAL Magazine. We welcome your comments on this column online or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.