What David Stirling and the SAS can teach business about Intelligent Rebellion

Innovation specialists enjoy the company of other unique characters like them who like to think and behave in different ways.

We believe that people who don’t conform, who actively explore the uncertain and allow risk-taking to unlock opportunity, who avoid creature comforts and think radically make the best innovators.

The people with these behaviours, underpinned by a cause are who we call, the Intelligently Rebellious.

We’ve asked Cat Hartland, Growth Strategist at Big Radical to write about a leader that she believes perfectly embodies the Intelligently Rebellious spirit.

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Sir David Stirling

Known as the Phantom Major, Colonel David Stirling was a pioneer of the British Special Forces. He founded the Special Air Services (SAS) during WWI to build small teams and utilise stealth and guile to undertake acts of sabotage behind enemy lines. His motto ‘Who Dare Wins’ still echoes today.

I was born and bred in Hereford. Lucky enough to have been brought up on the best beef and cider (pipe down Somerset) in the world. If you listen carefully, you’ll get notes of my yokel accent, particularly after a few ciders.

As well as amazing produce, Hereford is home to the world famous yet secretive military base, the SAS. The Special Forces has always been a part of my life. Living meters from Stirling Lines, my Girl Guides group was based on camp, I’ve known plenty of people join and I can spot a squaddie a mile off just by their choice of footwear and clothing brand (if you know, you know). But while everyone knows it exists, not many know the story behind how it was formed. 

I’ve picked David Stirling as the first of many Intelligent Rebels we’re highlighting due to his radical approach to military forces. 

Despite his military upbringing, Stirling dreamt about becoming an artist which could perhaps have been one of his first noted acts of rebellion. He did pursue his dream career and moved to Paris but was soon called back at the start of the first World War.

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Soon after some initial failed missions with the British Army, Stirling identified that there could be a better way to approach the ‘mechanised nature of war’. He believed that smaller groups of alternative and unique soldiers could use an intelligent advantage of surprise during a night attack to combat several targets from behind, which would be more effective than the then traditional ‘head to head’ approach of the army. 


Stirling wasn’t mucking around, he knew that if this idea was ever going to materialise, he needed to go straight to the head honcho Supreme Commander which resulted with a risky process, but with cunning and persuasion, he got the green light that he need to form “L Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade”.

Alternative to traditional army troops, the plan wasn’t to recruit masses of burly cardboard cut-out stereotypes that we think of when we think ‘soldier’. Stirling formed a small group of unique characters and personalities which were different from each other and even clashed fairly regularly, he wanted people who didn’t conform to encourage radical thinking. This was a key feature which still remains with the SAS’ recruiting process today. 

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Failure was a huge part of the unit’s future success. Their first mission attacking a German airfield by parachute at night was a complete disaster. Half of the original men were killed or captured, and they had to rely on the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) to rescue the remaining men by land. This is where Stirling learned that night attacks were safer approached by land and so used that method following this costly failure. This experience with the LRDG was a key collaboration for the future success of the SAS. 


There is a lot more to the story of David Stirling that I can’t do justice in one blog post for you to read in one sitting. If you want to get the full (and better written) story, I’d recommend that you read ‘SAS: Rogue Heros’ by Ben MacIntyre.  To summarise Sir David Stirling’s elements of Intelligently Rebellious success we’ve identified the following 5 points;

  1. Having a radical new idea

  2. Having the ability to influence the right people

  3. Using diversity to your advantage

  4. Embracing and learning from failure

  5. Collaborating to maximise your strengths and mitigate your weaknesses

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This formation of the SAS example is a remarkable example of inspiration to our rebellion with a cause approach to innovation at Big Radical. If something can be better, the art of possibilism and intelligently rebellious thinking (behaviours, mindset, environment, allowing failure) combined with the process of validation (testing, proof of concepts, strong business cases) reaps huge breakthroughs and innovative solutions.


We’re on the hunt for more radical thinkers like Stirling so look out for more examples from the Big Radical team, and in the meantime, nominate your favourite Intelligent Rebel and we might just publish it! 


Nominate your Intelligent Rebel

They could be a boss, a colleague, a world leader, a scientist, a sports person or someone else in mind who deserves a place in our rebellious hall of fame.

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