Maximizing the strengths of diverse team members is key to success in leadership and amplifying a unit’s ability to accomplish its mission most effectively. So how do Army leaders maximize diversity’s benefits to these ends?
First, we need to understand diversity itself. Many dictionaries define diversity by mentioning ethnicity or gender. But first they point to the state or fact of being diverse and exhibiting a difference or unlikeness, such as diversity of opinion, form or character.
Another key characteristic is diversity of experience and skills, some of which are unique and ones we may not often think of. But before we can blend all this into a successful formula, leaders first should ensure they build a foundation of treating every member of their team, military or civilian, with dignity and respect, showing team members that they are valued as individuals, not just for what they can do for the organization.
An example of diverse team success is the 525th Military Police Detention Battalion at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. I had the privilege of commanding this organization, known as the Vigilant Warriors, from July 2016 to July 2018. Our members’ efforts during that time led to the battalion earning the Army Superior Unit Award. Earning this award was a team effort by diverse soldiers and leaders from across the U.S.; units came from locations ranging from California to the East Coast, Guam, Puerto Rico and Hawaii.
When battalion Command Sgt. Maj. Jametta Bland and I highlighted the importance of diversity, we showed it started with us. We pointed out that our tightly bonded command team was made up of a straight, Caucasian, male, officer who had served in all three branches of the military police (MP) regiment (tactical/law enforcement, Criminal Investigation Division and corrections/detention units) and a lesbian, Black, female, enlisted soldier who had specialized in the corrections/detention field and also brought inspector general, drill sergeant and non-MP assignment experience to the team.
Our different life and career experiences, ways of thought and lifestyles were not sources of conflict or discord. Rather, they gave us exceptional insights to complement one another’s styles and cover each other’s blind spots. Rarely would either of us make a major decision affecting our soldiers without getting the other’s viewpoint and input first.
This was not a matter of being indecisive but instead was a method to ensure we examined the issue from all angles and were able to make a decision that best benefited our soldiers and the mission.
Our opportunities to leverage our diversity brought us into such alignment as a command team that when someone brought an idea or issue to one of us, we could tell that person what the other member of the command team would likely say or think about the issue.
In addition to the diversity that cemented the bond of our command team, the battalion drew its primary power of performance from the diverse background of its soldiers.
During our two years as a command team, Bland and I had the honor of leading 25 companies and detachments in the strategic detention mission of Joint Task Force Guantanamo. The combination of diverse active-duty, Army National Guard and U.S. Army Reserve units and soldiers made our battalion stronger than it would have been had it been composed of a single component.
A key benefit of this diverse unit composition is the civilian job expertise that reserve component soldiers bring that active component soldiers may not have.
An example of how this benefited our team was when our active-duty battalion headquarters company lost engineer soldier personnel authorizations. The engineers were responsible for a significant portion of maintenance and enhancement projects needed to keep the detention facilities running smoothly.
When the active-duty engineer soldiers departed and were not replaced, we found ourselves in a quandary, with no apparent way to continue the facilities-maintenance mission.
Battalion leaders examined the problem and quickly put out a call across the formation for any soldiers with construction, plumbing, electrical or other engineer-related experience.
The value of the diverse job skills of our soldiers was on clear display in this situation, as numerous MP soldiers from reserve component units in the battalion came forward with their civilian engineer expertise. These “engineer MPs” rapidly gelled into a cohesive maintenance structure, successfully keeping the critical detention facilities operating and able to fully meet Joint Task Force Guantanamo’s mission needs.
Amplifying the Effect
When leaders are able to leverage the holistic diversity of their soldiers, the unit and mission benefit. How can leaders amplify this effect, since they cannot be everywhere and have only so much capacity and time in which to pursue ways to leverage diversity?
As with many other aspects of military missions, leaders can best amplify effects by empowering and enabling soldiers to make decisions and take disciplined initiative within the leaders’ intent. For the 525th MP Detention Battalion, Bland’s understanding of the diverse needs, interests and mindsets of our soldiers made this happen.
Bland conceived and led the effort to establish, first, a Women’s then a Men’s Mentorship Program, with participation in each being voluntary. The Women’s Mentorship Program established the framework to make the program run and established the governance mechanisms to keep the program moving in a positive direction.
The lessons learned from the Women’s Mentorship Program paved the way for the Men’s Mentorship Program to stand up more rapidly, exemplifying the benefit of using the experiences of one group to help another.
Soldiers who participated elected the program leadership and planned projects and activities. Bland served as the command mentor for the Women’s Mentorship Program, and I had the privilege of serving as command mentor for the Men’s Mentorship Program.
The soldiers participating in the programs said they benefited immensely by having a confidential, open, nonrank-focused environment in which they could reach out for and provide mentorship to one another.
The diversity of life experiences and professional fields of expertise among participants was key to helping guide those who sought out support for personal, professional, financial and myriad other issues. The openness of the programs allowed soldiers to benefit from each other’s diversity, regardless of rank or background. This was the power of diversity in action.
Diversity Is Power
Diversity, whether in the realm of ethnicity, gender, background, professional skills, life experience or in any other, is the power that makes a unit exceptional. When leaders recognize this and set the environment of dignity and respect for all team members, and soldiers see this value in one another, there is virtually nothing a unit cannot accomplish. The success of the 525th MP Detention Battalion is a case study in this truth.
I urge everyone to take this idea, create or continue to support your unit’s diversity-amplifying environment, and achieve your success story. Diversity, inclusion and teamwork is a recipe for mission, unit and individual soldier success at every echelon.
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Col. Andrew “Drew” Deaton is director of operations for the Provost Marshal General of the Army, the Pentagon. Previously, he was a resident student at the U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. His military experience of 24 years includes commanding organizations as large as 1,100 and leading at senior levels in numerous others. He deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan in support of the global war on terror.