New Zealand Chief of Army Writing Competition Winner of the Officer Category May 2021.
Reconciliation or reimagination? Shifting the diversity dialogue from force design to cultural design.
By Mr T. Ewing-Jarvie
How can the NZ Army reconcile a more diverse and inclusive workforce with the maintenance of a warrior ethos and a war-fighting culture?
The diversity and inclusion agenda will divide us, not unite us, according to USAF LtCol Matthew Lohmeier. This is a premise of his recently released book, ‘Irresistible Revolution: Marxism’s Goal of Conquest & the Unmaking of the American Military.’ Despite leading to his removal from command, Lohmeier’s work reached number one on Amazon’s military policy charts and enjoyed a wave of high-profile and popular support. This debate has not been unique to the US. While few would argue that advances in social justice are misplaced, many New Zealanders have expressed uncertainty about the application of diversity and inclusion initiatives to warfighting institutions. This is reflected in the question this article addresses.
The importance of diversity and inclusion has already been well established. Therefore, this submission critically analyses the NZ Army’s approach to cultural change management by challenging the question. Is reconciliation the right objective, and have we tested the assumption that our culture should be maintained? The way we frame the question may seem like an exercise in semantics, but careful analysis can highlight problems in the way we think about war, society, and ourselves. This article contends that the NZ Army’s warfighting culture must deliberately evolve to be effective; a diverse and inclusive workforce will be both an enabler and by-product of this change. *
IS RECONCILIATION THE RIGHT OBJECTIVE?
A diverse, inclusive workforce and an effective warfighting culture are not mutually exclusive. However, words like ‘reconcile’ imply that some degree of concession will need to be accommodated for the ledger to balance. Assume for a moment, that diversity and inclusion were not stated objectives, and that the NZ Army was free to focus on its warfighting culture. Peter Drucker once famously observed, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” This didn’t necessarily mean that culture was more important than strategy, it simply highlighted that culture is either a strategic accelerator or a handbrake; the two cannot be considered independently. Since the Army translates strategy through the prosecution of operations, an effective warfighting culture could be thought of as one which enables the successful execution of strategy through operational excellence. Operational excellence isn’t just what we do, but how we think, interact and behave. It is the consequence of organisation-wide behaviours based on shared values. This makes strategy, culture and operations inextricably intertwined. So where does diversity and inclusion fit back into the fold?
Dr. Shigeo Shingo of ‘the Shingo Model’ fame described the cultural foundations of operational excellence as those characterised by respect, collaboration, buy-in and trust. Imagine a rugby team where an elitist forward-pack only half-heartedly collaborated with its backs or marginalised its halfback. Any environment which devalues the labours, ideas or dignity of its participants will produce disengagement and underperformance. Contrast this with an environment where dissenting views are welcomed in the spirit of continuous improvement, where everyone is bought-in on a singular purpose, and where an individual’s labour is equally valued within a hierarchy for its important contribution to the system. This resembles the All Blacks’ culture. Everyone brings unique strengths and weaknesses, whether captain or physiotherapist. No one is bigger than the team. The newest members are expected to contribute ideas. Everyone is equally bought-in on the charge to leave the jersey in a better place. This is a commitment to change, and to respect, collaboration, buy-in, and trust. It is diversity and inclusion driving operational excellence and it is a common feature of high performing organisations, from US SEALs to Google. What is there to reconcile?
TESTING THE ASSUMPTION
If diversity and inclusion are natural by-products of operational excellence, and we have struggled to integrate it with our culture, what does that say about the merits of maintaining the status quo? A warfighting culture is a tool, like a weapon or tactic, which must adapt to remain effective. Parts of it are indeed taonga [treasures] which must be guarded with respect and care. But culture is not a fixed and immutable truth. Whether we intend or otherwise, cultures are in a constant state of flux. We can be its architects or passengers.
If we accept the premise that we must be active participants in cultural design, what should we set out to change? Students of Clausewitz will be familiar with his distinctions between war’s fixed nature and changing character. The close fight: the personal, psychological, and political nature of lawful violence will likely be an enduring feature of war’s nature. This is where the guardianship of Ngati Tumatauenga’s [Tribe of the Maori God of War] cultural taonga should be concerned. But war’s character is shaped by the societies, politics, technologies and ethics of the times. We live in an age where military technologies can prosecute effects at ranges and with degrees of coverage, precision and devastation that are difficult to imagine. Success is no longer monopolised by those with superior strength, stamina or aggression.
This is not to say that these qualities are not important. But a warrior culture which disproportionately values antiquated measures of power over cunning, cognition and changeability risks becoming irrelevant. The character of the next war will reward disobedient thinking, technological innovation, the ability to exploit patterns in chaos, and to thrive amidst constant change. The organisational culture that fights this war successfully will not look like the status quo. It will discard traditions which borrow from bygone eras informed by class distinctions and mass-conscription. Not all its members will run RFLs, keep neat hair or progress through traditional promotion gateways. It will be diverse, inclusive, dynamic and relentless.
CULTURAL DESIGN AND CHANGE MANAGEMENT
The first step to cultural change is helping others recognise an urgent need. If people don’t see a problem they are unlikely to buy the solution, and if the problem is not urgent it will not be prioritised. This is an area the Army might reflect on. Our experience in Afghanistan taught us that influencing social values is a difficult business. Professor Franz Boas famously suggested that we can attempt to view the world through others’ ‘cultural glasses,’ but it is very difficult to take our own off. Our worldviews can be deeply tied to our sense of identity and belonging. Rightly or wrongly, they form hard ‘surfaces’ which seldom concede to direct confrontation. This is why it is so crucial to build a coalition of decentralised influencers within an organisation before attempting a change initiative. Given appropriate resourcing, each unit can benefit from a tailored rhetorical strategy, leveraging its own credible conduits to make connections. Demonstrating the need for change is more likely to occur while cleaning a rifle than in an auditorium, and what will work for an Artillery Regiment may be very different to The Army Depot.
It is also important to own the operative language of change and convey it in terms that align with existing values. For example, the Army’s warrior ethos describes cultural origins where “the strong thrived and the weak were subdued,” and where “individuals were only a small part of the larger unit.” This can lead some to view ‘inclusion’ as a synonym for over-elevating the status of the individual, and ‘diversity’ as a synonym for weakness or a devaluation of traditional workforce constituents. These views result from failures of rhetoric, and unchallenged assumptions. ‘Inclusion’ could just as easily be a synonym for synergy and cohesion. ‘Diversity’ could be the same for a team-of-teams, discarding groupthink, or advancing our country’s purpose. After all, nations coalesce around common ideological goals and values. New Zealand’s include the sanctity of human rights: the freedom to life, liberty, security, equality, and freedom from discrimination. The Army takes justifiable pride in going into harm’s way in the name of life, liberty and security. Should we be less proud of standing up for equality and rejecting discrimination? Shouldn’t this be an equal source of morale – our collective drive to fight? Shouldn’t we be role-models of virtue in society?
Diversity and inclusion will not divide or degrade us, it will empower us. This is why we should not attempt to reconcile the character of a changing workforce with our warfighting culture. Instead, our culture should be reconciled with the changing character of war, and the society it exists to serve. Getting these distinctions right is important, because the way we approach the subject highlights both opportunities and vulnerabilities in the way we think about war, society, and our places in both. When we understand the need for change and buy-in on a vision which resonates with our values, diversity and inclusion emerge as powerful components of operational excellence rather than threats to the status quo. Shifting the dialogue from force design to cultural design moves the question of what we fight to how and why we fight. What do we aspire to, and how does that organisation look and behave? How do we build on the legacy we have inherited to ensure we leave the jersey in a better place? Different is not a threat, it’s an opportunity. A warrior would rise to that challenge.
- <https://www.military.com/daily-news/2021/05/15/space-force-co-who-got-holiday-call-trump-fired-over-comments-decrying-marxism-military.html>, May 30, 2021.
- <https://www.foxnews.com/politics/republicans-demand-space-force-reinstate-lt-col-lohmeier>, May 30, 2021.
- Boris Groysberg, Jeremiah Lee, Jesse Price, and J. Yo-Jud Cheng, ‘The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture’, Harvard Business Review (January-February 2018), retrieved from https://hbr.org/2018/01/the-leaders-guide-to-corporate-culture, May 30, 2021.
- <http://lean.nh.gov/documents/Shingo%20Model%20Handbook.pdf>, May 29, 2021.
- James Kerr, Legacy: What the All Blacks can teach us about the business of life (London: Little Brown Book Group, 2013).
- Daniel Coyle, The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups (New York: Bantam Books, 2018).
- <http://lean.nh.gov/documents/Shingo%20Model%20Handbook.pdf>, accessed May 29, 2021.
- <https://warontherocks.com/2014/01/understanding-wars-enduring-nature-alongside-its-changing-character/>, May 29, 2021.
- John P. Kotter, ‘Accelerate,’ Harvard Business Review (Vol. 90, Issue 11, November 2012), p. 51.
- Mihai A. Stroe, ‘Master gears of anthropology: nature and culture,’ Romanian Journal of Artistic Creativity (Vol. 2, Issue 3, Autumn 2014), retrieved from https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A393098755/AONE?u=otago&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=0f189091, May 30, 2021.
- John P. Kotter, ‘Accelerate,’ Harvard Business Review (Vol. 90, Issue 11, November 2012), p. 51.
- <https://www.nzdf.mil.nz/assets/Publications/Way-of-the-New-Zealand-Warrior-2020.pdf>, May 29, 2021.
*Note. Due to the limited scope of this submission, the focal value of a diverse and inclusive workforce is linked to mission-effectiveness. It is acknowledged that overly reductive, ‘result-centric,’ approaches often overlook or devalue the human experiences of service people who have felt marginalised. It is crucial to acknowledge that diversity and inclusion is about more than performance.
Disclaimer: The information contained in the articles submitted for the Chief of Army’s Writing Competition represent the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the New Zealand Army. Publication on the KEA website does not constitute endorsement by the New Zealand Army.