Boyd and Ajax walk into a cubicle farm: a few thoughts about Rebels at Work

I’m gauged to tolerate more or less one management book a year. That’s not because I don’t care (I do) or because I pretend to know everything about leadership (I don’t and I don’t) or because there aren’t enough of them around (there are). Rather, most of them have very little to add to conventional wisdom and an abundance were written from a narrow perspective, and so, precious few have managed to speak to me. In my Grecian snobbery, the only work on leadership and management worth its salt was written by an Athenian general around 5th century BC, and is called Ajax. About which, later.

However, a number of epidemiologists I follow and respect – in particular, @DrBalsamAhmad, @PWGTennant and @statsmethods – have tweeted (twoth?) with approval of Rebels at Work, a book by Lois Kelly @loiskelly and Carmen Medina @milouness published by O’Reilly:

It sparked some very interesting comments, especially about a matter close to my heart: managing ‘moral frustration’ at work:

So I quickly procured a Kindle copy of the book, and devoured it in a single sitting, with copious annotations. That’s always a good sign.

Ms Medina’s name, of course, was immediately familiar1 – a career intelligence officer with three decades of service under her belt, she has served as the CIA’s DDI in the mid-noughties and finished her career with the Agency as the director of CSI, the Agency’s think tank. Closer to home, I knew her as the lady who took the enormous political risk to be among the first backers of Intellipedia, the US intelligence community’s shared wiki (and, in my humble opinion, one of the best things the US IC has come up with in a long, long time).2 Lois Kelly, meanwhile, has been a corporate consultant throughout most of her career.3 You couldn’t have picked two authors with more different backgrounds to write a book about prevailing with new ideas in rigid systems, yet their experiences coincide in the fulcrum of their book, Rebels at Work: both faced the tough challenge of bringing new ideas into bureaucratically petrified, change-resistant organisations. Their book is a culmination of their experiences, written for ‘Rebels at Work’: a field manual, so to speak, for waging maneuver warfare (or sometimes even guerrila warfare) against a larger, better equipped and solidly entrenched corporate infrastructure. The result is a book that has some great lessons despite ample space for criticism,4 and one that I kept mulling over long after devouring it in a single sitting. Instead of a review (there are plenty of those around and I’m not a great book reviewer), I’d prefer to focus on three points that, in my view, are missing from Ms Medina and Ms Kelly’s book.

40 Second Boyd’s Rebel Alliance

Col. John Boyd, USAF (1927-1997): the biggest damn hero you’ve never heard of, and an object lesson in the cost of rebellion.

If there has ever been a rebel in a stolid, unbending institutional structure who paid a high price for being right the wrong way, it was Colonel John Boyd, affectionately known as the Mad Major, the Ghetto Colonel (he spent most of his money on books and the care of his son Stephen, who suffered from polio as a child) and 40 Second Boyd (for a standing bet that he could defeat any fighter pilot in simulated 1v1 air combat within forty seconds – a bet he never lost). There is much more to be told about Boyd than would fit into several blog posts, and fortunately, a better writer has taken it upon himself to write the seminal biography of the man who changed not just the art of air combat but of how we think about strategy.5 Boyd was a synthetic genius, one of the few people endowed with the talent to draw on fields as disparate as thermodynamics, genetics, the then-still-nascent field of neuroscience (he commented on neuronal plasticity in an 1987 presentation, despite having no formal education in the life sciences!), psychology and anthropology – and find connections that pass most of us by.6 His work on energy-maneuverability (E-M) theory informs fighter design to this day, and he made significant contributions to the development of the ‘left hook’ of Operation Desert Storm that left the Iraqi army demoralized, scattered and in vulnerable disarray.

And he was also what Scotsmen call crabbit. Boyd was devoted to flying, but not to the chain of command. His insubordinations are as legendary as his accomplishments. When his superiors refused to grant him the computer time he would require to prove by simulations his E-M theory, he and a civilian mathematician, Thomas Christie, ‘stole’ computer time on the Eglin AFB mainframe to build the models and prove that US fighter aircraft were inferior designs to Soviet aircraft. His reward for what would have saved thousands of pilots’ lives in the case of an actual air war between the superpowers was an investigation by the Inspector General.7 Boyd was irreverent, once referring to the Thunderbirds (the USAF’s demonstration squad) as ‘trained monkeys’, and was fiercely politically incorrect before political correctness was a thing.

At the same time, he had a fierce loyalty towards the men who served with him. Alongside Christie, he had his own ‘rebel alliance’, jocularly dubbed the Fighter Mafia by Italian-American test pilot Col. Everest Riccioni. And he knew very well the cost of being part of the rebel alliance: this we know from a speech he often gave to young officers he thought about inviting into his alliance. It is, at this point, worth repeating.8

[O]ne day you will come to a fork in the road,” [Boyd] said. “And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.” He raised his hand and pointed. “If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.” Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed another direction. “Or you can go that way and you can do something – something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference.” He paused and stared into the officer’s eyes and heart. “To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do. Which way will you go?

The fact is that while we’d all like to be the rebels that eventually prevail, there’s no such guarantee. There most definitely is no guarantee that being a rebel, however well one plays the game, will be easy. A Rebel at Work is, quintessentially, an insurgent. Even a good, successful insurgency is a pain to carry out well. And that is provided you’re one of the few insurgencies that win.

And so, perhaps the idea of this ‘rebel alliance'9 lies uneasy with me because if things don’t turn out well – and however closely Ms Medina and Ms Kelly’s guidance is followed, success is never guaranteed! -, there’s more than one’s own welfare at stake. And like Boyd did, the honourable thing is to make sure that they know what the likely consequences of failure are.

Because not every rebellion wins. And if you’re drawing others into your rebellion, you’ll have to be able to live with what happens to them, too.

A few years ago, I had the singular pleasure to discuss Boyd with one of his last living collaborators and a few devotees of “Genghis John”, and one question came up repeatedly: how different would things have been had Boyd had a slightly more subtle sense of social interaction? How different would our world be if Boyd had somehow had Ms Medina and Ms Kelly’s book? As a scientist and an experimentalist, I am somewhat torn. On one hand, many of Boyd’s ideas could have been adopted earlier if he had cultivated a more positive personality. But at the same time, what if much of the substance of his ideas flowed directly from those negative features of his demeanor, the ones that made him a ‘bad rebel’: irascibility, a sizeable ego even for a fighter pilot, prone to outbursts of rage, the kind of obsessiveness that drove him to teach himself entire subjects from whatever books he could scrounge from the base library and, of course, his preternatural talent of alienating people. It is no accident that despite his illustrious track record and lasting developments, he never rose to general officer rank and in a final act of contempt, the DoD sent a single general officer to his funeral, despite his vast contribution to winning the first Gulf War mere six years earlier. Would a nicer Boyd have come up with E-M? Was his obsessiveness, a result of his socially alienating perspective and ensuing solitude, the fulcrum around which his genius leveraged? It is clear to me what Ms Medina and Ms Kelly would say – I’m just not sure as to the evidential basis. ‘Good’ rebels have an easier time (eventually), but I am not as willing to discount the ability of ‘bad rebel’ traits to produce worthwhile, yea crucially important, things as the authors are.

Ajax meets HR

The suicide of Ajax, depicted on a black-figure vase by Exekias, ca. 540 BC. If this sort of stuff goes down in your office, you might be having a leadership problem.

The greatest work on management and leadership was written and first performed at some point around 2,450 years ago. It was written by a general in his late 50s who, besides his military career, had a hold and an understanding of the human psyche few others since then have been able to even approach. It takes place towards the end of the Trojan War, immediately after the death of the Greek hero Achilles at the hands of the Trojan Paris. And over the years, I have often required my reports/subordinates to read it and often implored my superiors and COs, too, to (re)acquaint themselves with it.10 But what relevance is a two-and-a-half-millennia old play about warriors to modern corporate culture and Rebels at Work?

Early on in the book, Ms Medina and Ms Kelly identify traits of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ rebels at work. In particular, they associate anger, pessimism, obsessiveness and alienating others as traits of ‘bad’ rebels at works. And they’re right. Those traits will not get you particularly far. Nobody listens to angry voices and pessimism. You don’t want to be the departmental obsessive. And you most definitely don’t want to alienate the uncommitted – you’ll need that Rebel Alliance at some point.

But these points have particularly hit home because I’ve seen this tetrad too often, in history and in real life: anger, pessimism, hostility and a near-obsessive adherence to things that make sense to few others. They’re the hallmark symptoms of what psychiatrist Jonathan P. Shay called moral injury.11

The archetypal moral injury and betrayal of themis mentioned by Shay: during the Vietnam War, infantry units were often separated and felt alienated from their commanders, who directed them from their airborne command posts, with little awareness of the risks and situation on the ground.

Moral injury is what happens when what Shay referred to as themis is violated. Themis is one of those beautifully untranslatable Greek cultural artifacts – with a meaning of “order”, “moral rightness” and “the way things ought to be”. Or, as he most beautifully put it, it is the “social morality of what’s right”, “the normal adult’s cloak of safety”.12

Shay is, of course, speaking in the context of trauma, specifically combat PTSD. It is his thesis that combat PTSD happens when a traumatic experience is accompanied with moral injury. But moral injury doesn’t need a traumatic event to accompany it. It happens every day, in boardrooms, in offices, in cubicle farms, much as it happened on the sands of Troy’s shore, amidst the Greek camp, during the events that inspired Sophocles’ Ajax.

The quintessential moral injury Ajax suffers is betrayal of what he believes is themis. Rightly or wrongly, he believes that as not merely the strongest warrior of the Greeks after Achilles but also the warrior whose acts had a character of self-endangering altruism – he was referred to as the ‘shield’ of the Greeks as he protected other warriors behind him -, he would be due the armour of the fallen Achilles. Nor is he entirely wrong – it is clearly implied that this would have been the ordinary way of doing things. But instead, Odysseus convinces the Greek leadership to award Achilles’s gear based on a competition that clearly favours him, including one in rhetoric – not exactly Ajax’s forte. The tragedy that ensues is nothing short of heartbreaking. The altruistic warrior who sheltered other soldiers with his own body now slaughters the Greeks’ sheep and shepherds – a quintessentially antisocial act, not merely taking lives but also depriving the Greek army of valuable supplies. In the end, Ajax – despite the entreaties of his war-bride Tecmessa – commits suicide: once again an act not merely against himself but also against the Greeks, a final act of vengeance, depriving them of one of their most decorated warriors.

What Ms Medina and Ms Kelly call ‘bad rebels’ might not be ‘bad rebels’ – they might suffer from the moral injury of a chain of command, violating institutional, individual and communal themis. The risk of Ms Medina and Ms Kelly’s identification of bad vs good rebels is twofold: on one hand, it blames the victim of moral injury for its natural effects – on the other, it relieves a deeply flawed chain of command of responsibility. The effects may not be as bloody as Ajax’s end, but they may well be as morally, individually and personally devastating.

To be quite clear: the authors do get it. Or, in the words of Ms Medina:

With their experience, they no doubt are aware that some frustration is endogenous and some frustration is exogenous. My sole apprehension is that there are precious few tools and tactics to differentiate these situations – and this is not the book’s fault, but a consequence of the underlying problem’s sheer complexity. To perfectionists suffering in a work environment pervaded by ‘moral injury’, it may be impossible to consider that the true problem is outside one’s cranium, and having witnessed the torment of the ensuing frustration, it is crucial for rebels to learn when they’re in a situation that defies the normal approach.

Responsible rebellion: put on your oxygen mask first

Perhaps the greatest strength, besides the vastly differing perspectives Ms Medina and Ms Kelly that form a truly unique synthesis of viewpoints, is an inherent understanding throughout that ‘good rebels’ are not self-directed: they’re organizationally directed. Much like Boyd’s promise to his acolytes-to-be, what’s on offer is not glory and immediate satisfaction but hard work and, if all goes well, organizational level success. I’ve touched on the small-scale aspect of this earlier, when I considered that however indispensable a Rebel Alliance is, it also means we’re betting others’ careers, livelihoods and well-being on how we do our job. I’m sure that Ms Medina and Ms Kelly would agree with me: being a rebel at work is an exacting task with very little margin for error. But there’s a different scale of responsibility involved in rebellion: responsibility for self.

There’s a common concept in modern (post-WW I) military strategy known as Auftragstaktik or mission command in the English sphere of military education.13 Mission command is similar to what is known in software development as ‘declarative programming’: instead of providing a list of imperatives (orders, instructions), an end result is specified and the unit in question gets to figure out how to best accomplish it. This is often discussed in the context of decentralized command: instead of micromanaging units from a far-off regimental HQ, commanders can issue objectives and lower-level leadership, who are closer to the objective, can make the small-scale decisions with much better and much more accurate information straight from the vicinity of the objective. Instead of regimental HQ specifying from which side to assault a position, the platoon or company actually carrying out the mission can adapt to rapidly changing circumstances right there, on the ground.

The vulnerability of mission command is that if the leadership – or just a crucial element – of a unit gets incapacitated, all hell can break loose. This was witnessed quite often during the Vietnam War, where Viet Cong snipers targeted officers and radio operators to incapacitate command and control.14 On Twitter, discussing Rebels at Work and the fact that sometimes, cynicism is a legitimate idiom of distress to the kind of moral injury discussed in the previous section, Barney Hammond (@bhammond) hit the nail on its head:

And perhaps as far as being a rebel goes,15 that is a tough dilemma to resolve: when do we owe it to our Rebel Alliance to put the oxygen mask on ourselves first? Rebels at work, as the authors correctly identify, are organizationally-altruistically minded, sometimes even to the point of self-deprecation and putting themselves last. But it is exactly that attitude that needs to be tempered by what Barney so acutely pointed out: sometimes, we need to put the oxygen mask on first before helping others. To find this sensitive balance is not going to be easy – and I would not be surprised if most rebels at work would, once they have gathered their Rebel Alliance, struggle with finding the right balance between self-care and altruism.

In lieu of a conclusion

Reading Rebels at Work was a pleasant disappointment. It is a practical book, with actionable steps and things to think about – in that sense, it is a book that demands to be worked on. And the discerning reader can take a lot away – especially if years of struggling against corporate rigidity has left them wondering whether they’re even cut out for this role. Learning how to navigate some of the processes the authors describe has taken me long years and some restless nights and – I won’t lie – more than a few tears shed. In reality, Ms Medina and Ms Kelly’s book is not so much a handbook for rebels but a field manual for launching an insurgency – a sort of asymmetric warfare guide for waging 4th generation warfare (4GW) against slow-moving Prussian line infantry armed with muskets but vastly superior in numbers. And that perhaps is the most laudable feature of their book: it’s not about surviving as a NOC16 rebel in a hostile organisation, but about openly accomplishing ambitious goals by building a network of support (the Rebel Alliance), exploiting critical actors, tending to your assets (see the part about the oxygen mask) and integrating one’s own desired objectives with pre-existing organizational commitments.

It was somewhat surprising to me to see so many epidemiologists discuss this book on Twitter – I mean, surely most of us do not work in a rigid, corporate framework that would necessitate us putting on our Rambo headbands and jungle camo face paint and go full-on tactical. Until, of course, I realized that as public health workers, we’re passionate by nature. Apathy doesn’t sit well with a job that is ultimately intended to save lives. And there aren’t many books that are so even-keeled about keeping a balance between operating within the system while pursuing what is right, even in circumstances where the institutional structures aren’t supportive of those goals. And so, to epidemiologists, public health workers and all those in the wider field working to save lives, this book might just be the best three hours you’ll spend reading during the holidays.

Boyd himself often pointed out that nothing – not even his own presentations – should be taken as gospel truth. To me, Rebels at Work leaves three questions open, and they are indeed quite unsettling.

  1. How do we differentiate between a ‘bad rebel’ (for whom the adequate response is primarily corrective) and a ‘good rebel’ suffering the kind of moral injury Shay discussed in the paper op cit.?
  2. As scientists, we’re bound to ask: what if the features of being a ‘bad rebel’ are necessary for some products of the mind? Consider the example of Boyd.
  3. Finally, how do we know when to prioritize ourselves and when to prioritize our Rebel Alliance?

The collaboration between the authors having been so successful, I would not be surprised if we were to see some answers to these questions in a sequel. I, for one, will definitely be looking forward to it.

An afternote

A mere hour or so after I posted this on my Facebook page, Lois Kelly posted this poignant message and kindly gave permission for me to repeat it here:

Thanks for such a thoughtful analysis and good questions. In my experience and research with Rebels at Work, “bad” rebel behaviors are sometimes necessary and useful. (My outrage and anger has propelled me in such positive ways.) A school superintendent of a big city school system here in the US told me that to cram as much change through the bureaucracy before his contract ended he had to go fast and embrace the “bad” behaviors. He knew he would alienate people and be disliked and he knew the children, teachers and principals would benefit. Playing a short game differs from the long game, which is important to understand. As for prioritizing between ourselves and the cause: we have to always be practicing resiliency (and I do mean practice) to manage our energy, sense making abilities, and relationships. The saddest stories I’ve heard are from people who ruined their marriages and friendships because of their obsession with their work/cause — and then didn’t achieve what they wanted at work anyway. Self-compassion is especially invaluable.

Lois makes two fantastic points here, both worth some thinking. One of these is, of course, that what’s good or bad might be context-dependent, in the example she mentions, conditional on time: or to say it all in warfighteresque, some targets call for a careful, slow approach while others require a degree of violence of action. More important, however, is her point on ‘practicing resiliency’. I know this because I’ve been there myself, so caught up with what my mission was at the moment that I lost track of many other things in life, and I’m quite sure that if my wife weren’t the steadfast angelic presence she is in my life, it could all have ended badly. I have seen way too many people who sacrificed their home base for fleeting objectives that some of them can’t even really remember anymore. I saw a shocking number of these cases when I was briefly working in Big Law. It reinforces another important rule of land warfare: know your stronghold, protect it, defend it and do not risk it for fleeting advantages.

To us in fields where there’s something larger at stake – be it the wellbeing of one’s unit, the fate of a company employing thousands, the health of millions relying on us doing our job well or indeed the very security of our nation -, it’s easy to find a justification for neglecting our stronghold: our friendships, marriage and our relationship with ourselves as expressed through self-compassion. This is a particular risk to altruists, and most epidemiologists do have a core of pure altruistic concern for the well-being of others and for humanity at large. To practice resiliency – or, as @bhammond2011 put it, putting on one’s own oxygen mask first – is particularly important, however counter-intuitive it is to the altruistic instinct to put others first and oneself last. To quote a Regimental Sergeant Major I once knew who was as grizzled as he was wise: “I don’t know what use you’ll ever be to anyone, but I sure do know you ain’t no use to anyone dead.

Kelly, L., Medina, C., & Cameron, D. (2014). Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within. O’Reilly, $19.04 (Kindle). The authors also have a great website definitely worth checking out.

Reader questions: How did you find Rebels at Work? Do you feel it applies to your position in life and work? I’m particularly interested in epidemiologists, public health workers and researchers who found they got a lot out of the book. Don’t be shy, leave a comment!

References   [ + ]

1.You can take the boy out of the intelligence business, and so on.
2.Whether Intellipedia has lived up to its potential, and what that potential actually is, is a different story. But it takes willful disregard of the facts to ignore just how off the wall the very idea was: to begin with, Intellipedia had to exist on three different communication systems with a highest level of classification each of these could transmit: JWICS for TS, SIPRNet for Secret and Intelink-U for SBU/FOUO. I was in no sense au fait with the top of the US intelligence apparatus around 2005-2007 when Intellipedia was first proposed, but extrapolating from its current state, I would have been surprised if there had been more than one or two people who were willing to stick their neck out for such an idea – and as one of them, Ms Medina has all the right and credibility in the world to speak about being a rebel at a rigid bureaucracy playing a high-stakes game. I may not agree with Ms Medina on many things, but I can’t think of her with anything but the deepest respect.
3.I mean no disrespect by the fact that compared to Ms Medina’s career, I have less to say about Ms Kelly’s – merely that there is less information I could find.
4.I found some parts bordering on pseudoscience, especially the use of MindTime, which is neither sufficiently validated with peer reviewed research nor is its application in the book well executed: we know little about the sample other than the sample size and the fact that there was almost definitely some degree of selection bias. The problem with using pseudoscience at any point is that it casts doubt on the entire corpus at large.
5.Coram, R. (2002). Boyd: The fighter pilot who changed the art of war. Little, Brown.
6.DNI-POGO has all of Boyd’s presentations in original and modernized formats, and you should read them. The deck that best displays his incredible synthetic genius is Strategic Game of ? And ?, available here in its original form.
7.Kane, T. (2012). Bleeding Talent: How the US military mismanages great leaders and why it’s time for a revolution, Macmillan.
8.This version is taken from Coram’s book, op. cit.. Several of Boyd’s acolytes whom he invited on his quest for change confirmed the content of his invitation.
9.I refuse to go along with the ‘Dumbledore’s Army’ analogy many have raised on Twitter. Dumbledore’s Army is an object lesson on how to mount a stupid insurgency that will get you killed.
10.There is a great translation by Bryan Doerries, which you can buy on Amazon together with his translations of Philoctetes, the Trachinae and Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. Doerries, like me, believes in the abiding power of the Classics to speak to us today, too, and has held readings of many of these plays in all kinds of venues, from military bases through prisons to hospitals and hospices.
11.Shay, J. (2014). Moral injury. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 31(2), 182. Available online here.
12.Shay, J. (2010). Achilles in Vietnam: Combat trauma and the undoing of character. Simon and Schuster. An excerpt from the book is available here.
13.There are convoluted arguments as to whether the two terms do indeed cover the same ground, but for the present purposes, these are largely irrelevant.
14.In his seminal book on the battle of Ia Drang, then-Col. Hal Moore describes practicing exactly for this scenario by occasionally declaring platoon leaders ‘dead’ during training and have their sergeant take over command of the platoon. This would, as his memoir, We Were Soldiers Once And Young describes, often make all the difference between a decapitated unit being able to continue to operate or fall into disarray.
15.I share many of the traits Ms Medina and Ms Kelly would identify in a rebel, but I am not quite sure if I would neatly fit into that box without reservations. Nor, I’d wager, would most people.
16.Non-official cover.