Intelligence will not keep you relevant; ability to adapt will

In the book Team of Teams by Gen Stanley McChrystal, the US Special Forces commander paints a picture of the training and preparation that is required to become a member of any US Special Forces team.

The training was like clockwork. Everyone was trained in the same way. The forces packed their bags the same way.


Nothing could possibly happen out on the field that they were not prepared for. Their preparation book was like the Holy Grail.


It was followed with no room to manoeuvre to the left or to the right. With this level of preparation and efficiency, they had literally become the best Special Forces team in the world.


This was the case until the world changed and the sad reality set in that they had been prepared for a world that no longer existed. Nothing brought this out for them like having to deal with Al Qaeda in Iraq.

In his words, “We were struggling to understand an enemy that had no fixed location, no uniforms, and identities as immaterial and immeasurable as the cyberspace within which they recruited and deployed propaganda.”

The result? The Team of Teams was losing the war against Al Qaeda in Iraq. They were outwitted and had to suffer the consequences.

During their watch, according to McChrystal, Iraq had the highest number of terror attacks anywhere in the world in 2003 and in one year, the country had lost 8,300 lives as a result of terror attacks.

In perspective, this is almost three times the death toll from the September 11 attacks against the US which precipitated the attack on Iraq.

The general concludes that: “In order to win, we would have to set aside many of the lessons that millennia of military procedure and a century of optimised efficiency had taught us. Adaptability and not efficiency would have to become their central competency.”

Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one most adaptable to change.”

So the stark reality is that irrelevance does not have respect for the best training in the world. If the Special Forces who with all the investment in their training and with all the resources at their disposal could get to a point where they discovered that their training was no longer relevant in the context in which they found themselves, then I assure you there is no one that is protected from the onslaught of irrelevance.

One of the most difficult things for intelligent people is to admit that they are wrong or better still to unlearn the very things that made them intelligent and therein lies the problem. Until we are ready to challenge the things that once made us intelligent, we are an endangered species.

Take the case of Sir John Eric Erichsen, a British doctor, who was appointed Surgeon Extraordinary to Queen Victoria, in 1873.

He famously predicted that “The abdomen, the chest and the brain will forever be shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon.”

He did not have to wait for too long. In 1884, Rickman Goldee successfully performed the first-ever modern brain surgery and removed a brain tumour.

Some 11 years later, the first heart surgery was performed by Norwegian surgeon Axel Cappelen. The queen’s surgeon was no doubt very intelligent and very well trained but he was wrong.

Many of us remember 1999, the year the whole world was caught up in the grip of the Y2K fear. It was the fear that as the clock hit midnight on December 31 that all systems around the world that were computer-driven would crash. Money systems would crash. Medical systems, power systems and every single thing that was connected to a computer were going to fail.

Some of the brightest minds in the world explained with brilliance how it was going to happen. They were after all very intelligent people.

Some other intelligent people made a lot of money by “making systems Y2K compatible.” (Only God knows what these ones actually did).

Well, the year 2000 rolled in and there was no incident. Nothing happened. All the predictions of the intelligent people had been proved to be wrong. Again, they were intelligent but they were wrong.

A section of very intelligent people once said that the earth was flat. They were intelligent but again wrong.

A very intelligent person called Bill Gates – yes the same genius who gave us Windows once said that 640K of memory was more than anyone needed. He was wrong.

Riding on yesterday’s intelligence because it served you well is one sure sign that your days of relevance are numbered.

The writer is the chief transformation officer, PowerTalks.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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