Are You Reeling In The 'Weird'?
Updated: Oct 30, 2021
Another re-post from my internal NSA blog. A bit of contemporary commentary follows.
A stray thought on corporate culture.
There's a rock 'n roll legend you may have heard of - Jeff "Skunk" Baxter - former guitar player for Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers, and legendary session guitarist. He has had an amazing musical career, and is an immensely talented and influential player. By any measure, Skunk Baxter is Rock ‘n Roll Royalty.
He now spends his days mostly as a defense consultant, a self-made expert on ballistic missile defense, unconventional strategy, etc. I was watching an older interview on YouTube with a senior AF Officer, extolling Jeff's virtues as consultant. When asked what made Jeff's work so valuable, the officer replied that Skunk was an out-of-the-box thinker, brought a fresh viewpoint, yada yada yada. All very well deserved, I am sure.
BUT my first thought was, what a heap of horse hockey. I would bet my mortgage money that this same Officer had several equally brilliant, out-of-the-box, fresh and unconventional thinkers working for him somewhere deep in the hierarchy of his Pentagon Prison-Box. But the same virtues that he paid Skunk to exhibit had bottled up these folks' careers, and hidden their value.
I know a number of you personally.
So what we might hope for is a corporate culture that values fresh, unconventional ideas, out-of-the-box thinkers, constructive dissent, and just plain interesting and unconventional people - without having to rent them as consultants. (By The Way, *I'd* pay Skunk Baxter to come in for consulting. But maybe get him to sneak in some guitar tips while he's here).
2021: I was a bit "miffed" when I wrote this. I had a friend working in a different NSA organization, and he had called me just to blow off steam after yet-another blow-up with his manager. He and I weren't close personally, but we connected musically - our common point was the work of Michael Nesmith (yes, Michael from the Monkees, who went on to have a groundbreaking career in country rock, music videos, and even filmmaking.) Ken was a classic unconventional thinker - not brilliant, but very clever. Not always right, but always worth listening to. He had no patience for bureaucracy, organizational sludge, or timid leadership - and he expressed his impatience in ways that made his management crazy.
The line "I know a number of you personally" was directed to him and to the other handfuls of unconventional thinkers, "oddballs", "weirdos", and sometimes-lost souls who I connected with over the years. Some of them worked for me, some called when they hit a breaking point with their boss, and some just stopped by every once in a while to talk.
The "unconventional thinker" is a classic management dilemma. We all claim to want them and their fresh ideas, until we have to manage them. One manager's "unconventional thinker" is another manager's "difficult personality". "Fresh viewpoint" or "uncomfortable truth"? " "Passionate" or "obnoxious"? "Creative" or "disruptive"? There's no single correct answer.
But if you are in a leadership position, you have accepted the responsibility to sort this out; to help every person in your stewardship reach their potential and contribute their unique value to the mission - even when they make you uncomfortable, or even crazy, on any given day. And I am not claiming that I always got this right throughout my management career. I have worked with a number of brilliant, dedicated people who also had the ability to make me uncomfortable AND crazy. But I know that the work of our organizations was greatly enriched by their contributions. And any effort I made to get past my own discomfort or hurt feelings to understand and appreciate their ideas was well worth it.
Bonus! Here's a classic "unconventional thinker" viewpoint, found in a declassified internal NSA document. Imagine being this person's manager. "Disrupter" or "Truth-teller"?