A Junior Officer’s Guide to Leading Creativity in the Army

By: Jordon Swain & James Armstrong
creativity for the JO (DRAFT) v2

“As always, Cavalry’s motto must remain: When better roller skates are made, Cavalry horses will wear them.”

       -Major General John Herr, last Chief of Cavalry

 

Introduction

Junior officers in the United States Army lack creativity – this is what a survey of Army leadership reveals. Specifically, innovation was one of two junior officer attributes that consistently received the lowest percentage of favorable ratings according to both the 2012 and 2018 Center for Army Leadership Annual Survey of Army Leadership (CASAL).

Why does this matter?  After all, the Army doesn’t offer art classes or creative writing seminars in any of its junior leader development courses (unless you count what Military Intelligence Officers do with markers and plastic…).  Well, the reason is simple – the Army is operating in an increasingly complex world with new challenges and problems that require solutions past experience may not necessarily provide.  In his statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee in early 2021, General Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, highlighted precisely this fact by emphasizing the volatility, uncertainty, and complexity of today’s environment and the subsequent need for critical and creative thinkers.  In this rapidly changing environment, identifying new opportunities rather than doubling down on old advantages is a survival skill; we must change or die. We must embrace creativity and innovation. 

While the Army addresses creativity as an element of leadership doctrine and provides creativity tools as part of the Army design methodology, it’s not always apparent how these things apply to junior officers.  It is also important to move beyond just focusing on promoting individual creative thinking.  Leading creativity at the tactical level deserves more emphasis and discussion.  To be clear – we don’t need junior officers to be the most creative or innovative men and women in uniform (although individual creativity is certainly a desirable goal). We need junior officers to be able to lead creativity in the units they oversee.

Clarifying terms

Before offering advice on how to lead creativity, we want to clarify a few things – to make sure we’re all on the same page.  The Army (and others) often use “creativity” and “innovation” interchangeably – along with terms like “creative thinking.”  Simply put, creativity is the act of conceiving something new, while innovation is the implementation of something new.  You could say innovation is creativity applied to a problem. Creativity is a necessary component of innovation.  But we don’t have to split hairs – for the purpose of junior officers wanting to lead creativity, it’s probably most useful to think of creativity as finding novel, practical ways to solve real problems.  What might this look like in the Army?  How about finding novel solutions to: 1) motivate diverse groups of people, 2) using/allocating scarce resources to accomplish a task 3) adapting to a changing adversary, threat, or missions…just to name a few.

Now that we’ve established what creativity looks like in the Army, we can move on to offering some advice on how junior leaders can lead creativity in their formations.

Leading creativity

Creativity and innovation are not the exclusive purviews of general officers and their staffs (according to Adam Grant in his 27 April 2021 testimony to the US Senate Committee on Armed Service, “DoD’s culture is a threat to national security” because the culture stifles innovation.  This culture has been built and promulgated by GOs and their staffs!).  Too often, the Army isolates creativity and deep thinking exclusively to senior officers.[1]    In fact, research on creativity and innovation suggests that those with less institutional bias (e.g., junior officers) are in better a position to generate new ideas.[2] In other words, junior officers can (and should play) a role in fostering creativity and innovation in our Army.  What follows are things that junior leaders – what YOU – can do in the Army to lead creativity in your teams:

  • Prepare yourself. While you don’t need to be the most creative person on your team, you can’t lead creativity if you haven’t done some personal preparation.
    • Develop expertise. Research suggests that in-depth knowledge or expertise precedes creative ideas/solutions.[3] For the junior officer, this means reading and understanding doctrine. Doctrine is a guide based on foundational principles and assumptions.  Having a solid grasp of doctrine will help you understand how to achieve principles differently or where assumptions are invalidated.  But – you do not have to rely on doctrine for everything – that’s not creative. You can also read fiction – which has been shown to facilitate individual creativity.   A quick caveat – given that many leaders are successful because they perform established doctrine well, embracing innovation and creativity will likely require accepting risk and additional work on your part (more on this later). 
    • Be humble. Being open to admitting one’s limitations, showing appreciation, and giving credit to others are hallmarks of humble leaders.  Acknowledging you may not be the person who is going to come up with the creative solution is important as it allows you to be more open to seeing good ideas or solutions coming from others.  But being humble also helps encourage information sharing and psychological safety which, in turn, encourages team creativity.[4]
    • Lead by example. You can add “be creative” or “embrace innovation” to your leadership philosophy or initial counseling with others, but you can’t delegate or put the onus of creativity completely on others.  Walk the talk.  Plan creative training – try new things at PT or during motor stables.  Don’t simply replicate the same drills or schedules you fell in on or saw in previous assignments. If you’re not satisfied with the status quo, try something new.  If you model creativity and innovation, others will follow. 
  • Create the environment. Leading creativity requires setting up the right work environment to allow people’s motivation and creativity to thrive. Innovation is driven by individual creativity and is mediated by the environment.[5] As junior leaders, you don’t have much control over selecting the people you lead, but you can influence the environment to help lead creativity in several ways.
    • Provide your support. Perceived leader support matters.  Subordinates will be more creative when they perceive their immediate supervisors as being supportive of them and their work.[6]  You can provide support in a few ways. First, you can show support by adopting creative solutions.  Nothing shows support like actually adopting an idea.  You can also help reduce friction.  Novel ideas, even if they’re good ones, are often met with resistance.[7]  Many Army leaders have gotten where they are by following doctrine and orders- those that deviate from the norm can often be viewed with skepticism.  By candidly discussing risk and identifying benefits and clearly communicating that information up the chain of command, you are providing support- and can help overcome some of the resistance you and your team will encounter as you pursue creative solutions to the problems you face.
    • Provide resources. Creativity requires resources.  The most important of these may be time. People need time to think and experiment.  
    • Tolerate failure. We know “winning matters”, but hear us out.  Every new idea isn’t going to work.  In fact, people who seem to generate great new ideas all the time don’t succeed more, they just make that many more attempts than anyone else; you only notice their successes.  If it’s new and never been tried before, there may be some hiccups.  How you respond will communicate to others if you are really serious about encouraging creativity and innovation.  That said, you need to choose appropriate opportunities – some missions are “can’t fail.”  When you have picked opportunities to try new things, make sure you learn from the failures – repeating failure simply isn’t wise. If military history is clear about any facet of innovation, it is that learning organizations do better
    • Reward innovation/creativity. Perhaps more important than tolerating failure, you should reward the successful demonstration of creativity and innovation.  But pay attention – we’re not talking about giving people AAMs or ARCOMs for being creative. Research shows that extrinsic motivation or reward is often detrimental to creativity and lowers intrinsic interest.[8]  However, rewards/motivators that either allow a person to be more engaged or confirm their competence, can add to intrinsic motivation and creativity. These rewards pay future dividends because people become passionate about solving problems when intrinsic motivation is involved.
    • Become a storyteller. Learn how to tell a compelling story to communicate a creative idea.  This can help reduce some of the friction that often accompanies creative solutions.  It can also help shape culture by communicating expectations and inspiring your team to embrace creativity.
  • Harness genius. By definition, leading creativity requires the input of others.  You can lead creativity by harnessing the genius in your team.
    • Leverage diverse perspectives. Harnessing the power of group genius will generate more novel ideas than any one person can on their own. Remember that good ideas can come from all ranks – and they don’t even need to come from those in uniform!  Don’t just focus on those ideas that immediately appeal to you.  Ensure you consider multiple sources and be open to ideas that may seem outlandish at first.
    • Ask questions. The more difficult the problem, the more likely it is that you will not have the answer – and that is OK! As problems increase in complexity, your ability to ask the right questions is more important to leading creativity than providing answers.  Remember when soliciting ideas and input, you might want to hold your opinions in reserve to avoid influencing idea generation and promoting groupthink (just like junior officers often tell their superiors what they think their bosses want to hear, your subordinates may do the same!)
    • Match people to the right assignment. Of all the things you can do to stimulate creativity, perhaps the most efficacious is the matching of people to the right assignments or tasks. You can match people with jobs that play to their expertise and skills and increase their motivation to be creative. This takes work – you need to get to know your people and involve them in the decision-making process.  Pay attention to their interests because they will attack a problem they are passionate about more fervently than a problem they feel is “assigned.” Remember that discussion about intrinsic motivation?
    • Connect people and ideas. Use your position as a leader to scan the environment – link up those with similar ideas.  Maybe two “bad” ideas can be combined to come up with a better solution or a couple of mavericks can brainstorm with each other and realize synergy that wasn’t there when they were operating on their own.  As Steve Jobs said, “Creativity is about connecting things.” 

Conclusion

Leading creativity isn’t easy.  There is a natural bias against creativity.  Add to this the fact that the Army is a bureaucracy (bureaucracies can impede creativity), and it becomes clear that realizing creative solutions in the Army can be an uphill battle.[9]  But that doesn’t have to be the case.  You don’t have to kill creativity – you can lead it!

Leadership matters. Leaders (even junior leaders) shape culture and influence the behaviors of those they are in charge of.  Junior officers can help the Army realize the novel solutions it needs to thrive in the rapidly changing world in which we operate.  By preparing yourself, creating a conducive environment, and harnessing the genius in your team, Company Grade Officers like you CAN lead creativity in the Army to overcome the problems we currently face, as well as those we will face in the future.

If you’d like to incorporate the topic of creativity and innovation into your unit’s LPD program, we suggest checking out the Center for Junior Officer’s Watch2Lead product on the topic here.

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Jordon Swain is an active-duty Lieutenant Colonel and the Director of the Center for Junior Officers.  He holds a Ph.D. in Organizations and Management from Yale University and a MBA from the Wharton School.  LTC(P) Swain has published on multiple topics related to leadership and leader development with an emphasis on exploring leader humility in the military context. He attempts to work on his creativity by doing far too many escape rooms with his two teenage daughters.

 

Jim Armstrong is an active-duty Lieutenant Colonel and a student at the United States Army War College. His service includes exploring advanced capabilities and concepts as part of the Joint Staff Innovation Group and command through the battalion level. LTC Armstrong has published leadership and tactical lessons learned topics and holds a bachelor’s degree in systems engineering and master’s degree in military history.

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[1] Innovation in the Army needs to come from the top down and the ground up | Article | The United States Army

[2] Hill, A., & Gerras, S. (2016). Systems of denial: Strategic resistance to military innovation. Naval War College Review69(1), 109-133.

[3] Baer, J. (2015). The importance of domain-specific expertise in creativity. Roeper Review, 37(3), 165-178.

[4] Gonçalves, L. and Brandão, F. (2017), “The relation between leader’s humility and team creativity: The mediating effect of psychological safety and psychological capital”, International Journal of Organizational Analysis, Vol. 25 No. 4, pp. 687-702. 

[5] https://ojs.stanford.edu/ojs/index.php/intersect/article/download/699/621/2761

[6] Amabile, T. M., Schatzel, E. A., Moneta, G. B., & Kramer, S. J. (2004). Leader behaviors and the work environment for creativity: Perceived leader support. The Leadership Quarterly15(1), 5-32.

[7] Mueller, J. S., Melwani, S., & Goncalo, J. A. (2012). The bias against creativity: Why people desire but reject creative ideas. Psychological Science23(1), 13-17.

[8] Amabile, T. M., Schatzel, E. A., Moneta, G. B., & Kramer, S. J. (2004). Leader behaviors and the work environment for creativity: Perceived leader support. The Leadership Quarterly15(1), 5-32.

[9] Hirst, G., Van Knippenberg, D., Chen, C. H., & Sacramento, C. A. (2011). How does bureaucracy impact individual creativity? A cross-level investigation of team contextual influences on goal orientation–creativity relationships. Academy of Management Journal54(3), 624-641.