Intellectual Edge: The Pursuit of Lifetimes

Shawn McCann


Intellectual Edge: The Pursuit of Lifetimes

Attaining an intellectual edge requires more than just ticking progressive boxes of formal education, it calls for a lifelong curiosity to critically observe and absorb experience.

A military can measure its technological edge by comparing its capabilities and limitations to that of  its adversary. How do combatants measure their intellectual edge, and more importantly, should they? The act of inferring that one combatant can maintain an advantage of intelligence over another presents several problems. First, it reeks of the enemy dehumanisation that militaries have practised throughout history.[1],[2] The term intellectual edge sounds intellectually arrogant. Intellectual arrogance[3] is an individual’s inability to admit ignorance for the purpose of learning from others. This inability to admit ignorance can create biases that preclude people from being in the moment and addressing the realities of their situation. For warfighters, this presents a dangerous disadvantage. Second, given enough time, belligerents can outspend, innovate, learn, adapt, or otherwise circumvent any perceived advantage of their opponents. An intellectual edge therefore becomes fleeting and will require service members to earn it from moment to moment. And third, information superiority cannot be assumed in an evolving age of warfare.[4] Not having accurate or verified data to base decisions on can neutralise any perceived intellectual edge. As a concept, intellectual edge works best as a post-mortem measure and our service members require something to take with them into combat. The organisation should provide service members with a culture of learning, the canon of the profession of arms, and the capacity to thrive in the complexity of war. Instead of developing a hypothetical overmatch, advantage, or edge, this article argues for empowering service members to develop the capacity to learn through complexity[5]—or to learn in the face of challenges inherent to warfighting.


Empowering Service Members

If intellectual edge endures as a concept and becomes more than a buzzword, militaries must make radical changes in the way they perceive learning. As a first step, the concept of intellectual edge must connect firmly to a doctrine, find consistent usage throughout that philosophy, and become a measure of effectiveness; not unlike assessing a platoon commander’s ambush mentality[6] during a military exercise. This article defines an intellectual edge as the individual’s capacity to creatively out-think and out-plan current or future belligerents.[7] Closing the gap between an intellectual edge and the daily routine, mission, and purpose will allow servicemembers to develop a habitual application of processes and practices. These processes and practices may lead to service members developing the capacity to learn through their experiences, and the complexity[8] associated with today’s military operating environments.[9]

Next, military organisations should promote psychological safety,[10] or provide the environment necessary for people to feel safe enough to fully participate in intellectual activities like group reflections. In their articles on intellectual edge, Kourelakos speaks to the changes required of a hierarchical organization to move from risk aversion to risk aware, and Garnett proposes that leadership grants its service members interpersonal permissions to experiment with new ideas.[11],[12] When leadership switches to a risk-aware mindset and provides interpersonal permissions, service members may then perceive an environment safe enough to bring their whole self and fully engage with others in tasks like problem solving.[13] Leadership perceptions and actions may set the tone, but psychological safety requires the individual to perceive that they can bring their authentic selves to their role in the military unit without fearing damage to their self-image, as well as status, and career.[14]

Major General Mick Ryan, Commander Australian Defence College, asserts that the “ultimate expression of institutional intellectual edge will be the capacity to either win without fighting in a strategic competition or be able to apply its strengths to win any fight that it must engage in.”[15] Because history declares the winners and losers after the cessation of fighting, militaries must also designate formative measures, or assessments conducted during preparation for strategic competitions. Failing to do so is negligent. Establishing measurable supporting concepts can provide insight into the command and individual level capacity for learning through complexity. Some examples of measurable concepts include grit,[16] ambiguity,[17] emotional intelligence,[18] learning agility,[19] critical thinking,[20] and empathy.[21]


Intellectual Traits

To achieve Major General Ryan’s vision for solving institutional problems,[22] individuals and the organization can begin with the concept of intellectual traits:[23] integrity, independence, perseverance, empathy, humility, courage, confidence in reason, and fair-mindedness. This article specifically advocates for the practice of intellectual empathy or understanding the other’s point of view: Empathy may otherwise be defined as feeling with others. However, intellectual empathy does not just happen, one must first cultivate the intellectual humility to seek out the opinion of others.

Learning starts with intellectual humility, or the open-mindedness to seek out other perspectives and recognize one’s own limits, bias, and egocentrism. Intellectual humility is the opposite of intellectual arrogance, and provides the opportunity to employ intellectual empathy, which can lead to a better understanding of the other, or those with differing perspectives or privileges. The practice, awareness, and desire to probe for diverse ideas and include the other in discourse does not come naturally.[24]

Empathy also requires purposeful practice. Research revealed that group members tend to falsely perceive that others in the group will simultaneously experience similar emotions, and moreover inappropriately infer that the group feels the same as they do.[25] From strategic planners to those digging a fighting hole, service members know to turn the map around and take a belligerent’s perspective.[26] Leaders should also extend this courtesy to those whose thinking diverges from their own. Major General Ryan writes that an essential aspect of developing an intellectual edge requires that “groups at different levels…harness the disparate and diverse intellects of its individuals to solve complex institutional problems…”[27] This assertion directly ties the concept of intellectual edge with intellectual humility and intellectual empathy. Otherwise stated, diverse intellects must be recruited, protected, and empowered by the military organisation so that they are given a voice that others will seek out, listen to, and adopt their perspective—even if only temporarily as they validate or discredit the perspective.

Intellectual empathy also requires rationality, therefore emotions should be surfaced and recognised prior to acting.[28] Ideas that evoke divisiveness and discomfort should signal the need to unpack both the emotions and ideas. US Marine Corps Commandant General David H Berger stated in a recent article that the Marines “will not allow a failure of imagination to define this period…will continue to challenge the status quo and continue to ask all the hard questions—regardless of the discomfort they produce.”[29] To deal with the discomfort, and thereby allow for honest, open dialogue, service members could practise mindfulness.[30] Mindfulness will focus service members, allowing them to stay in the present, regulate emotions, and without judgement address the issues at hand. Otherwise, when being challenged, leaders will likely fall back into a debilitating habit pattern of acting on feelings of defensiveness and embarrassment instead of staying in the present to deal with the discomfort that can ultimately lead to learning.


Barriers to Implementation

The intellectual traits of humility and empathy can eventually build to developing a lifelong learner, or they can become a list of buzzwords. Trait theory is an example of listing nice-to-have leadership qualities that embodies the definition of useless as personal traits do not predict a potential for leadership.[31] And the concept of empathy is not without its own controversy: Education may have a negative correlation with empathy; meaning, when one increases the other decreases.[32] One could infer that the danger in becoming an expert is the attitude that one no longer needs to include others in decision-making. Experts intuitively see what to do when posed with a problem in their domain. This negative correlation demonstrates the applicability of intellectual traits for novices and experts alike. And more so than novices, experts must recognise the existence of unconscious biases and reflect on the natural tendency to bypass collaboration or dismiss the contributions of others. This tendency can grow to include silencing new ideas and ignoring the data that their way of doing things no longer serves them well.

Learning through complexity, or the learning required to adapt and achieve in ambiguity and uncertainty, requires more than simple expertise. Such learning is messy, nonlinear, tough to predict, and difficult to measure.[33] Unfortunately, typical near-term measures—like exams—do not predict far-term learning transfer, or the future application of learning in context.[34] Still, leaders will likely hold tightly to an illusion of control[35] and overvalue examinations, student surveys, and other near-term learning measures.

Even with the increase in data, processes, and educational opportunities, organisations may still remain less prepared for the future.[36] And that paradox can influence leadership to demand more control by adding more courses and purchasing new technology, assuming that these actions will result in a paradigm shift. Expertise in the profession of arms serves as a baseline requirement for achieving an intellectual edge, and professional military education (PME) can lead that development. PME must also consider informal learning, or the learning that occurs on the job (in context) and outside of the formal, institutionally controlled learning. Informal learning leads to improved service-member performance as well as the achievement of strategic goals.[37] This learning is difficult to regulate; therefore, formal schools might reconsider their perceived monopoly on learning. Instead, PME should empower service members with the practice of reflection to make their learning more effective, and “unearth erroneous assumptions and mistakes, and to identify and forestall unintended negative consequences”.[38]


Next Steps

Intellectual empathy and mindfulness are measurable practices that affect decision-making and can allow teams to harness the power of diversity to solve problems. These practices may serve warfighters well in learning through complexity. Adding applied processes like these can lead to new thinking and radical change. Prescribing more of what we already do, just better, will not result in transformative change. PME may need to operate from a different philosophy and theory of education.[39]

Kurt Lewin said that there is nothing so practical as good theory.[40],[41] The intellectual edge concept still requires a strong philosophical grounding, and then maybe it becomes a theory; a practical tool for warfighters. In 2008, Nicolaides and Yorks started the conversation in the field of adult learning and development exploring the epistemological implications of learning through complexity.[42] A most demanding and trying human endeavour, the profession of arms should join this cross-paradigmatic discourse. This conversation views learning as a verb and not a syllabus or list of content to study, and one that may lead to a discovery of applicable practices for creating intellectual warfighters. Maybe then the intellectual edge can become the thing that empowers service members to holistically develop themselves and ultimately decisively win on the battlefield.


Bio: Shawn McCann retired from the United States Marine Corps after serving as an infantry officer and education officer. As a consultant, he has led the creation, implementation, and delivery of highly sought-after developmental workshops for the Marine Corps’ Training and Education Command. Shawn has earned a doctorate in adult learning and leadership from Columbia University and currently works as a Senior Researcher at EY.


[1]Bruneau, E., & Kteily, N. (2017). The enemy as animal: Symmetric dehumanization during asymmetric warfarePloS one12(7), e0181422.

[2]NPR 'Less Than Human': The Psychology Of Cruelty March 29, 20111:00 PM ET Heard on Talk of the Nation.

[3]Samuelson, P. L., Jarvinen, M. J., Paulus, T. B., Church, I. M., Hardy, S. A., & Barrett, J. L. (2015). Implicit theories of intellectual virtues and vices: A focus on intellectual humilityThe Journal of Positive Psychology10(5), 389-406.

[4]Malloy, R. E. (2004). The Fleeting Nature of Information Superiority. NAVAL WAR COLL NEWPORT RI JOINT MILITARY OPERATIONS DEPT.

[5]Nicolaides, A., & Yorks, L. (2008). An Epistemology of Learning ThroughEmergence: Complexity & Organization10(1).

[6]Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1-3 Tactics.

[7]Ryan, M. (2020) The Intellectual Edge: A Competitive Advantage for Future War and Strategic Competition Joint Force Quarterly 96

[8]Yorks, L., & Nicolaides, A. (2013). Toward an integral approach for evolving mindsets for generative learning and timely action in the midst of ambiguityTeachers College Record115(8), 1-26.

[9]Fenwick, T. (2003). Reclaiming and re-embodying experiential learning through complexity scienceStudies in the Education of Adults, 35(2), 123-141.

[10]Hirak, R., Peng, A. C., Carmeli, A., & Schaubroeck, J. M. (2012). Linking leader inclusiveness to work unit performance: The importance of psychological safety and learning from failures. The Leadership Quarterly23(1), 107-117.



[13]Carmeli, A., Sheaffer, Z., Binyamin, G., Reiter‐Palmon, R., & Shimoni, T. (2014). Transformational leadership and creative problem‐solving: The mediating role of psychological safety and reflexivity. The Journal of Creative Behavior, 48(2), 115-135.

[14]Kahn, W. A. (1990). Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work. Academy of management journal, 33(4), 692-724.

[15]Ryan, M. (2020) The Intellectual Edge: A Competitive Advantage for Future War and Strategic Competition Joint Force Quarterly 96

[16]Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goalsJournal of personality and social psychology92(6), 1087.

[17]McLain, D. L. (1993). The MSTAT-I: A new measure of an individual's tolerance for ambiguity. Educational and psychological measurement, 53(1), 183-189.

[18]Hall, L. E., Haggerty, D. J., Cooper, J. T., Golden, C. J., & Dornheim, L. (1998). Development and validation of a measure of emotional intelligence. Personality and individual differences, 25, 167-17.

[19]De Meuse, K. P. (2017). Learning agility: Its evolution as a psychological construct and its empirical relationship to leader success. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research69(4), 267.

[20]Stupple, E. J., Maratos, F. A., Elander, J., Hunt, T. E., Cheung, K. Y., & Aubeeluck, A. V. (2017). Development of the Critical Thinking Toolkit (CriTT): A measure of student attitudes and beliefs about critical thinking. Thinking Skills and Creativity23, 91-100.

[21]Caruso, D. R., & Mayer, J. D. (1998). A measure of emotional empathy for adolescents and adults.

[22]Ryan, M. (2020) The Intellectual Edge: A Competitive Advantage for Future War and Strategic Competition Joint Force Quarterly 96

[23]Paul, R., & Elder, L. (1990). Critical thinking. Rohnert Park, CA: Sonoma State University.


[25]Markin, R. (2011). Does my group know how I feel? Measuring intellectual empathy in groups using the social relations model. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice15(1), 1.

[26]Cutright, K. R. (2013). Empathy for Carnivores. Army Command and General Staff Coll Fort Leavenworth KS School of Advanced Military Studies.

[27]Ryan, M. (2020) The Intellectual Edge: A Competitive Advantage for Future War and Strategic Competition Joint Force Quarterly 96.

[28]Andrade, E. B., & Ariely, D. (2009). The enduring impact of transient emotions on decision making. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes109(1), 1-8.

[29]NOTES ON DESIGNING THE MARINE CORPS OF THE FUTURE 6 DEC 2019 | Gen. David H. Berger, Commandant of the Marine Corps.

[30]Walach, H., Buchheld, N., Buttenmüller, V., Kleinknecht, N., & Schmidt, S. (2006). Measuring mindfulness—the Freiburg mindfulness inventory (FMI). Personality and individual differences40(8), 1543-1555.


[32]Roopa, C. G., & Joseph, C. (2007). A preliminary study on empathy and personality in military medical officers. Indian Journal of Aerospace Medicine51(2), 28-39.

[33]Nicolaides, A., & Yorks, L. (2008). An Epistemology of Learning ThroughEmergence: Complexity & Organization10(1).

[34]Perkins, D. N., & Salomon, G. (1992). Transfer of learning. International encyclopedia of education2, 6452-6457.

[35]Langer, E. J. (1975). The illusion of controlJournal of personality and social psychology32(2), 311.

[36]Nicolaides, A., & Yorks, L. (2008). An Epistemology of Learning ThroughEmergence: Complexity & Organization10(1).

[37]Marsick, V. J., & Watkins, K. E. (2003). Demonstrating the value of an organization's learning culture: the dimensions of the learning organization questionnaireAdvances in developing human resources5(2), 132-151.

[38]Marsick, V. J., Watkins, K. E., Scully-Russ, E., & Nicolaides, A. (2017). Rethinking informal and incidental learning in terms of complexity and the social context. Journal of Adult Learning, Knowledge and Innovation1(1), 27-34.

[39]Garamone, J. (2020) Joint Chiefs Vision changes Military Education Philosophy. DOD News.

[40]Lewin, K. (1951). Problems of research in social psychology. In D. Cartwright (Ed.), Field theory in social science: Selected theoretical papers (pp. 155-169). New York: Harper & Row. (p169).

[41]Yorks, L. (2005). Nothing so practical as a good theory.

[42]Nicolaides, A., & Yorks, L. (2008). An Epistemology of Learning ThroughEmergence: Complexity & Organization10(1).