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How to Wage a Counterinsurgency Against Organizational Culture

Updated: Mar 13, 2021

By Ben Ordiway

Posted with permission from From the Green Notebook

When dealing with a crisis, spending time having the entire organization stand down may be a missed opportunity to invest in the very people you should be standing up…

There’s an old saying often attributed to investors and farmers: If you want to make two million, start with four. There’s always a bit of truth in humor; it’s the punch in the punchline. The truth is: blindly spending money to make money may leave you staring at the red ticker tape or the barren field in disbelief. Likewise, if leaders in military organizations consider their time in terms of monetary spending, they risk equally unfortunate yields. Time is a non-renewable resource that we never really possess. It is not ours to spend; rather, we are charged to invest it. Managers spend their time. Leaders invest their time.


Leaders are likely giving the bottom 10% far too much influence in their organization by spending time creating systems to thwart them and dedicating resources to explain and apologize for them. This time is not well spent nor well-invested. In fact, mobilizing the bureaucratic machine against the broader organizational insurgency may have the unintended consequence of educating the next generation of covert organizational insurgents.

To be sure, this is not a “pay no attention to the few bad apples (toxic assets)” argument—this is an argument for creating a culture (the barrel) where the good apples are inspired to root out the rot, thereby preempting the need for the morale-draining, often compliance-themed, shotgun approach (e.g., the “Stand Down,” the “Comprehensive Review,” the “Reaffirmation Memo”). This perpetuates a compliance-based organizational culture which, by definition, is less likely to gain commitment (much less commitment to virtuous thinking and doing) from the bulk of its population. Managers proscribe; leaders prescribe.

Leaders should pursue influencing the intermediate population by recognizing the moral multipliers for what they do. As it stands, many leaders seem to adopt a “that’s your job, why should you be recognized for doing it?” mentality. To illustrate the point: do you have your subordinates write their own negative counseling statements? Didn’t think so. Now ask yourself, how many of your subordinates have written their own awards? Your answer to the second question might reveal how you weigh punishment relative to recognition as a means of influencing organizational culture. Ultimately, in spending time on the organizational insurgency, leaders abandoned an opportunity to influence the mean of the organizational culture’s bell curve to the point where there is, for lack of a better term, a “moral majority.”

In summary, behaviors regress to the organization’s cultural mean. Leaders would do well to invest their time to move the mean toward the 20% of moral multipliers. Reinvesting your time in these true, quiet professionals will make your organization’s portfolio more resilient by raising the overall culture’s commitment to the organization’s values. You will foster a culture of defensive stocks, which will isolate the organizational insurgents, possibly preventing them from becoming toxic assets.

Moreover, viewing these exemplars as organizational change agents and messaging their example may, like preventative maintenance, deter organizational insurgents. By swaying the intermediate population toward a culture of commitment, leaders increase the certainty that bad actors will be held accountable for their misdeeds. After all, organizational insurgents likely avoid interacting with moral multipliers. To shape organizational culture is to wage a counterinsurgency against the 10% by investing time in the 70% by, with, and through the 20%


Read the rest of the article at From the Green Notebook

Benjamin Ordiway is a Civil Affairs Officer currently pursuing an M.A. in Philosophy at the University of Michigan. He enlisted as a Cavalry Scout in the Army in 2004 and received his commission as an Armor Officer from the United States Military Academy in 2012. You can find him at


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