The U.S. Army exists to deploy, fight and win the nation’s wars. Every person in the Army, regardless of their duty, educational background, warfighting function or rank, is part of a greater team. The team is unified around a single purpose of defending America’s freedom and protecting human dignity worldwide. The inherent strength of the Army is drawn from the diversity of its people, who represent the wide-ranging backgrounds of Americans. While diversity is often interpreted narrowly as a proxy for demographic differences, we advocate for an expanded view of diversity—one that is focused on a more comprehensive interpretation that fundamentally builds more cohesive and effective teams. This broader definition of diversity includes differences in gender, race and ethnicity but also includes differences in thought, experience, background and talents. Leveraging differences into strengths requires deliberate leadership to point and guide a team toward a common goal.
Diversity is a strength for any organization that is drawn from unifying a group of disparate people and leveraging their talents to form a cohesive team. An equitably diverse organization not only addresses problems of inequality but also is better performing, particularly when creating solutions to complex problems. While diversity is often misunderstood or assigned narrow connotations, analogies can help explain its potential.
A basketball team is a great way to envision diversity as a strength when it comes to team unity around a greater purpose. Unity does not mean uniformity or being just like someone else. Instead, unity can be defined as a group of people with a shared sense of purpose, values, vision or mission. Unity on a team is not about being the same, but about advancing toward the same goal together.
On a basketball team, there are five different positions, and each position is characterized by different roles and responsibilities that, when played well, make a difference for the greater good. All five players, although playing different positions with different skills, have the same goal: score points and win as a team.
While leaders often attribute importance to the most visible and prominent members of the team, they also must work to be inclusive of the hidden members of the team, just as the human body cannot survive without a strong immune system or a pancreas. The concept of tapping into every team member’s strength is most often associated with the study and application of leadership, but it is fundamentally synonymous with diversity and its contribution toward team and organizational success.
In this sense, diversity’s role in an organization is analogous to the human body, in which every cell, organ or anatomic component plays a unique role in achieving the mission; many different parts work together collectively for the health of one body. Leaders achieve unity through applied diversity, in which leaders understand and leverage every team member’s expertise, strengths and unique perspectives to tap into a strengths-based leadership model.
In doing so, leaders can effectively bring members of the organization into positions of relevance that reinforce buy-in while also finding optimum roles that allow the members to succeed based on their talent for the greater good.
Extending the idea of diversity to the leader’s role lends itself to comparison to an orchestra, in which the leader is the conductor responsible for synchronizing every instrument in harmony. Just as diversity must go beyond mere representation, an orchestra isn’t effective merely because musicians of every instrument are physically in the concert hall. The conductor must enable each musician to play the instrument for which they are most capable and communicate clearly to synchronize their performance.
A performance that is missing certain instruments will fail to reach the full depth and potential of the musical piece the orchestra is playing. This analogy is representative of the leader’s role in applying diversity and diversity’s importance in setting the tone for a unified team; one that assesses and taps into individuals’ strengths while balancing their weaknesses. Leaders must seek to understand these in order to place individuals in the roles that allow them to succeed individually and as a collective.
Diversity is further linked to the notion of balanced teams and the clinical-care team process that occurs in hospitals. Diversity in this context involves ensuring that the appropriate expertise and stakeholders are involved in a clinical decision-making process for a patient’s care.
An important, but often neglected, member of this team is the patient, who should have an integral voice in their own care. The universal process on hospital wards of conducting rounds is a relevant example of this, in which teams synchronize care for a patient.
An effective strategy is rounding with the patient present, rather than doing so outside the patient’s room. This ensures the decision-making team is not only diversely representative of the clinical team but also includes the patient, who can both inform and be informed by the process.
This also can reinforce and help drive clinical care that is culturally competent in ensuring that the patient’s goals, questions and input are all captured for maximum health and recovery.
The popular concept of cross-functional teamwork across military staff members succinctly captures the objective of leveraging diversity based on multifaceted expertise, experience and skills, which is crucial for the unity of effort around mission accomplishment. Cross-functional teamwork generated on any team will allow diverse perspectives to be shared for better solutions, possibilities and decision-making toward accomplishing a shared objective. A cross-functional team that embraces rather than resists diverse perspectives can help mitigate the adverse effects of blind spots, egos, silos or consensus-driven groupthink that can pervade and stifle an organization.
When teammates with different areas of expertise come together in harmony to solve a complex problem for the greater good, the solutions will become more powerful and more successful.
There is no single strategy to achieve applied diversity, but achieving a cohesive team takes a comprehensive and intentional approach with the realization that every person’s duty matters. This approach involves talent management to apply strengths-based leadership. In doing so, leaders leverage the diverse talents within a team for a greater purpose, as well as recognize counterproductive behaviors by any individual.
To illustrate this, we return to the analogy of an orchestra. While 99 of the 100 musicians are synchronized, one off-key or rogue musician can completely undermine the entire performance and prevent unity of effort.
Similarly, counterproductive behavior by one teammate who is not in alignment with the team values or goals can negatively affect a team. In doing so, the leader’s responsibility involves quickly identifying and correcting counterproductive behaviors, like a cancer cell that can be caught early with a positive prognosis or be left untreated and allowed to malignantly spread and threaten the health of the body.
Diversity’s fundamental tenets of race, gender, ethnicity and nationality continue to pose inequity challenges that leaders must continue to address on a daily basis, while concurrently striving to also leverage diversity in the broad interpretation we’ve offered here. Individuals who volunteer to serve in the Army come with different gifts and talents from different places and backgrounds, yet become unified around a shared professional identity and a greater purpose to defend our nation’s freedom.
For the Army to defeat the next adversary and win, it will take the infantry, pilots, mechanics, scientists; the young, the wise, the innovators. It will take those with cultural competence, those who are easily adaptable, and those who are not afraid to think differently to outcompete the enemy.
Diversity on any team will always be a competitive advantage when unified around a greater purpose and tapped into for the highest collective potential and greatest good by the leader.
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Capt. Robert Cockerham is a graduate student at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, Maryland. Previously, he was the operations officer, 426th Brigade Support Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). He has deployed to Iraq.
Capt. Kinjal Bhalodia is an operations officer in the Mid-Atlantic Recruiting Battalion, Lakehurst, New Jersey. Previously, she was the fire support officer, 2nd Battalion, 32nd Field Artillery Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division. She has deployed to Kuwait and Iraq.
Lt. Col. Amy Thompson is the division surgeon for the 101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Previously, she served as the Defense Health Agency liaison to the Joint Staff Surgeon. She has deployed to Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.