I’ve been labelled a rebel, a nonconformist, and someone unlikely to succeed when I was in my senior year of high school. Not because I was any of those, but I wasn’t going with the flow as was expected of young adults back then. And honestly, that wasn’t intentional. I was following my curiosity and the answers weren’t convincing. So, I started looking for answers when everyone else tried to comply with the norms, standards, policies and procedures.
That might have been 2001-2, but I can confidently say that little has changed over the years, except that I’ve become more intentional about the art of non-conformity. It doesn’t have to be loud, bold, or over the top like John Boyd, an uncredited genius military strategist, who also happens to be one of my heroes.
And if you’re a leader, at any level, you must read his fascinating biography Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War written by Robert Coram. Though there are several leadership lessons in the book, I found a few that were worth talking and sharing about:
“You gotta challenge all assumptions. If you don’t, what is the doctrine on day one becomes dogma forever after.“
Probably the reason why shutting the fuck up might not be the best thing for you to do. Of course, the above isn’t an invitation for you to be a disruptor but an insight that should prompt you to question, explore, and discover what’s beneath the surface.
Of course, not all assumptions are baseless. Some require an understanding that goes a level or two below the surface, allowing you to make better decisions. Or go along with the plan with sharper insights that might help you to create a different outcome than otherwise.
This one below is a pep talk that Boyd used to give to his junior officers or trainees when asked for career advice.
“Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road, and you’re going to have to decide which direction you want to go.
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.
Or you can go that way, and you can do something — something for your country and your Air Force and 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 favourite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and yourself. And your work might make a difference.
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. “
I don’t have anything to add to that. Re-read it. Once more, please. And now, it might be a good idea to copy and paste that text onto your notepad app and print it out. It’s a powerful thought that’s bears re-reading several times over.
To be or to do? Which way will you go?
“If a man can reduce his needs to zero, he is truly free: there is nothing that can be taken from him and nothing anyone can do to hurt him.”
Boyd used to speak the truth. The cold hard type that nobody likes. As we know, telling the truth has power, but it comes with significant risks. The ones you can’t afford to take if material securities and possessions are an essential part of your life.
He was extremely frugal and lived in a tiny apartment while driving his cars literally to the ground. As you can tell, that’s not for everyone. But you don’t have to reduce your needs to zero like Boyd. Just focusing on the essentials might be good enough. The big idea is that achieving financial freedom can allow you to be truly fearless.
More the reason why you should be working towards downsizing your lifestyle to the absolute essentials. Not minimalism. Essentialism. There’s a difference.
The best way to change an institution is often not to drop out and rail against it from the outside but to stay in and transform it from the inside.
This idea is from Boyd’s profile on The Art of Manliness, and I love it! It’s so different from the usual reaction to quit everything and work towards a brand new start. Of course, Boyd was a patriot and loved his work with the Air Force more than anything else. He could’ve quit his job and found a better opportunity elsewhere but hiring someone as brash, blunt, and divergent of a thinker is a risk to any organisation.
Also, quitting wouldn’t solve the real challenge (as per Boyd, and he was right) that the Air Force was going through. So, yeah, he wasn’t going to be promoted, but he could still make a difference. Also as Brett & Kate McKay say, “Boyd hadn’t joined the military to accumulate insignia on his uniform; he was driven by the desire to “change people’s fundamental understanding of aviation” and sincerely wanted to make a significant, lasting contribution to warfare and the world. The Air Force was a highly imperfect channel to do so, but the best possible one.”
I think our world needs more people like John Boyd to shake us up from time-to-time. It might be the worthiest of all causes in our lifetime. And I believe we all could do our bit to be or to do. The question remains, which way will we go?