Simon Sinek on What Makes the United States Air Force So Innovative

In Chapter 9 of 20 in his 2011 Capture Your Flag interview with host Erik Michielsen, author and leadership expert Simon Sinek shares what he has learned about open-mindedness and innovation by working with the United States Air Force (USAF). Sinek finds the USAF has created a culture of innovation by encouraging its people to be open-minded thinkers constantly seeking to improve how things work. This openness allows the Air Force to look at different perspectives, including outsider opinions from individuals such as Sinek. Simon Sinek is a trained ethnographer who applies his curiosity around why people do what they do to teach leaders and companies how to inspire people. He is the author of "Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action". Sinek holds a BA degree in cultural anthropology from Brandeis University.


Erik Michielsen: What has working with the Air Force taught you about open-mindedness?

Simon Sinek: They are perhaps the most innovative organization on the planet. If you think about most big corporations – corporations who have significantly contributed to the innovations in our society – most of that have actually contributed one, at best two, things.  Microsoft: Windows, that changed the world. The other stuff? Good stuff … World changing? Wouldn’t go that far. You know? One. One. Apple: Maybe two things in there, you know? The graphic user interface, they didn’t really invent it but they perfected it, you know? So most corporations who develop something big do one thing. Now let’s look at the Air Force. The reason that we have commercial flight came out of military, you know? I mean the mil - the Air Force, or the Army air corps really propelled that industry. Anti-lock breaks, GPS, you know, all of this stuff … Satellite communications … Cell phones, hello?

And all of this stuff came out of the Air Force. And one of the reasons they are so innovative is that they have open minds. They’re constantly looking for better ways to do things, you know? Where they say that every Marine is a rifleman, absolutely every airman is an innovator. That’s just the way they’re wired. And because of that, they are so curious, and so interested in what outsiders have to say. The other armed forces – and most corporations, let’s be honest – they’re much harder to get in, you know? They like to protect themselves, and it’s hard to get in the door. The Air Force, they’re constantly looking, they’re constantly open, they’re constantly curious. It’s not an accident that they found me, because here I am a guy with unusual perspective and they were interested in it. If you want to find new and better ways of doing things, you have to look to other people, ask other people and just get outside opinions. It just goes with the territory.