08/04/2012 11:22 EDT | Updated 10/04/2012 05:12 EDT

Management Prefers Those Who Think "Inside the Box"

One of the rarest and most useful assets for a "leader" is the ability to think "outside the box," as they say. My father revered "outside the box" thinking, and as someone who stayed in the army after the First World War, one of his preferred rants was that "high rank in the military tends to turn brain into bone."


One of the rarest and most useful assets for a "leader" is the ability to think "outside the box," as they say.

I interpret this to mean the ability to stretch beyond conventional thinking, and break new ground that isn't necessarily involved in a person's training. "Outside the box" thinking is useful in various aspects of life, but especially in war, in the military, in politics, perhaps in business and certainly in professional sports.

My father revered "outside the box" thinking, and as someone who stayed in the army after the First World War, one of his preferred rants was that "high rank in the military tends to turn brain into bone."

That quip reflected his own travails with thinking outside the box. At one period, he was slated for court martial for tampering with a Vickers machine gun to make it fire better, but was saved when the weapon proved more reliable and the Vickers people offered him a job when the war ended.

As a machine-gunner, he liked to site his machinegun ahead of the front lines instead of behind them, knowing that the Germans would assume the machine gun would be conventionally sited in or behind the trenches and overshoot his position with artillery.

At the beginning of WWI, the British disparaged the machine gun as a weapon useful for fighting colonial wars, but one that upset the balance of the British rifle regiment. The Brits authorized only two per battalion. Germans, on the other hand, had banks of machine guns which inflicted a terrible toll.

Canada had an innovative soldier in Brigadier-General Raymond Brutinel, a French citizen in the Canadian army who was first to put armoured plate on automobiles and created the first armoured car. Brutinel's mobile Motor Machine Gun Brigade used machine gun fire to harass behind enemy lines. Innovative thinking outside the box.

In Winnipeg's Fort Osborne barracks in the 1920s, annual war games ended with the cavalry storming infantry lines (Princess Pats) and winning the day. As a company commander, my father had his troops armed with blankets and sheets. When the cavalry charged, the soldiers leapt up and waved towels and sheets and stampeded the horses. The infantry then rounded up the fallen riders and declared them prisoners.

The umpires were miffed, and disqualified the Patricias. "Outside the box" thinking was not appreciated.

Major General Lew MacKenzie relates perhaps a perfect example of thinking "outside the box." In WWII, Bomber Command was suffering horrendous casualties. A bunch of boffins and academics were assigned the job of finding a better defence for our bombers.

They had onion skin traces made of all bombers returning from raids, as to where they'd been hit by anti-aircraft and enemy fire. All the traces showed similar masses of black spots where bullets and shrapnel hit.

Instead of reinforcing these parts on aircraft, the academics advised armoured plate on the white spaces that showed no hits. Airforce types were skeptical, until it was explained that the planes that didn't return from raids had probably been hit in places that the returning bombers hadn't. The wounds returning aircraft endured didn't affect their ability to stay in the air. So leave those areas alone. The white, or unhit places on the aircraft, were the most vulnerable.

The armoured plates on the undamaged places on bombers, cut down losses by something like 30 per cent. Radical, outside the box thinking.

When I was in the Korean War, a big deal was to catch a prisoner. We never did.

As a junior officer I approached the colonel (H.F. Wood) with an idea to get RCEME to modify a leg-hold animal trap to close with a couple of inches to spare, and plant it on a trail we knew Chinese patrols used. Then wait in ambush for someone to step in it, and hopefully catch a prisoner.

Col. Wood chuckled over the idea, but when battalion workshops contacted him that I was getting them to fashion a trap, he called me in and warned that the bear-trap idea violated the Geneva Conventions, and to forget it. I never forgot it, and brooded accordingly.

These days the opportunities for "outside the box" thinking seem particularly relevant to pro-sports. Football games are alarmingly predictable. I await a coach with five yards to go on the last down, to pass or run instead of kicking. The mere possibility would make the opposition feel uneasy. Do the unexpected. But it rarely happens.

One never sees lateral passing these days -- instead it's plunge or pass. Imagination seems stifled in those whose trade is football.

In baseball someone stealing home is so radical, that the possibility disrupts the pitcher and defence -- even if the steal fails. Just trying it unsettles the pitcher.

Who remembers Bill Veeck, at various times the owner of the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns and Chicago White Sox -- and baseball's greatest "outside the box" thinker? Veeck brought the first black player into the American league (Larry Doby), and introduced players' names on the back of the uniform. He was first to use fireworks to celebrate a home team's home run.

But his tour de force was having a three-foot-seven dwarf (Eddie Gaedel) pinch hit in 1951 for the Browns (with the warning that a sniper would shoot him if he swung the bat). Gaedel walked on four pitches, whereupon he was replaced by a pinch runner. To this day, Gaedel is listed in baseball record books as having been at bat once.

Veeck brought Minnie Minoso back to the Chicago White Sox for eight at bats so he could say he played in four decades, and then brought him back for an at-bat in 1980 when he was 53 to make it five decades.

Veeck was a quintessential "out of the box" thinker and activist -- resented by other owners when he was active, elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame after he died.

That's the way it often is with those who think "outside the box."