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By Mr C. Parsons

With around 6,300 in the Army ranks and 14,000 in the combined New Zealand Defence Force, the organisation’s leaders spend a considerable amount of effort thinking about the future of the force. As Deputy Chief of the New Zealand Army, I am particularly interested in the diverse make-up of the Army. Building diverse talent throughout an organisation is a key to having a strong pipeline of diverse senior leaders. The Institute of Director’s Getting on board with diversity1 guide for boards notes that diversity at the top requires a diverse pipeline at senior management level to support development into governance roles.

The Army is an organisation looking to build diverse leadership at all levels. Currently, the New Zealand Defence Force is a majority male organisation – 2017 statistics show that females make up 23.3% of the Defence Force (Navy, Army, Air Force and civilian staff ). Within the Army this figure is 12.8%, although it is higher in officer ranks, where 17.9% are female. The ethnic make-up of the Army includes 1.5% Asian, 4.7% Pacific peoples and 17.2% Māori. However, these figures do not tell the full story, as about a third of the Army prefer to simply identify as New Zealanders. I am proud that Māori are more highly represented within the Army than in the general population and that the proportion of Māori grows to over 26% of the Army’s senior enlisted leaders. This growth has happened quite naturally and Māori culture within the Army is particularly strong. But more needs to be done to increase the number of commissioned officers that are Māori and Pacific peoples and to attract other ethnicities and women to the Army as well. From a business perspective, diversity is absolutely needed.

The vanguard of our diversity programme is currently getting more military women. Women are approximately 50% of the population and yet we are only getting 12–18% in different ranks. Defence will be a stronger organisation and be able to make a more significant impact if greater numbers of women join forces with us. I already know, having seen it on operations, that a woman in the patrol can talk to other women in the environment and settle situations and maybe save lives. Often the people who are most impacted by conflict are women and kids, and if we can connect with them we can help to improve things. I believe that a growing Asian population in New Zealand also calls for greater representation of Asian views in the Army and that requires a bit of a breakthrough to happen.

I see familial relationships as a key to growth. Getting to the point where people can say “my cousin, my uncle, my dad, my mum” are with the Army and they enjoy it and contribute to something worthwhile – that will help make the military a more obvious career choice than is perhaps the case now. While there is certainly a need to expand the ethnic make-up of the Army, I think too much focus can be put on gender and ethnicity.

Leaders of organisations need to recognise that diversity comes from factors other than what is dictated at birth – the natural differences that lead to diversity. Nurture is the other, often overlooked, side of the coin that includes a person’s beliefs, cultural and environmental upbringing, education, experiences and their personality type. A lot of people think of diversity as the obvious things we can see like gender, ethnicity or age and that by simply increasing their quotas and hoping for the best they’re going to get diversity’s benefits. But it’s wider than that.

I think we’re in danger of saying ‘this woman will think this way’, or that man is a ‘white, stale, male’ and they all think the same. That’s not true; engineers think differently to artists for example. Fundamentally, what we want is the outputs of diversity. To me those are twofold; the ability to connect with a wider audience and the ability to solve problems by bringing different mind-sets to bear. What’s more, diversity on its own is not a solution.

Deployment into different societies has shown me that diversity can cause conflict when different cultures clash. Diversity to my mind is powerful, but it’s not a panacea. If you create a diverse team but don’t spend enough effort on acculturation, diversity can be quite divisive. In the military we help different societies where often that is evident. You can see one tribe is from here and another tribe is from there and they haven’t acculturated well and the result is conflict. So when you are selecting diverse talent you have to figure out how to build the team as well. I would like to point out research around how to do this well – where people can keep their identity, their diverse point of origin, but integrate into the team and adopt the culture of their working environment.2

Within the Army, basic training remains the primary means of acculturation, where civilians become soldiers and learn about the values and characteristics that form the army ethos, without foregoing their own culture and identity. I recognise that the popular perceptions of Army culture and the stereotypical characteristics of leaders in the Forces could have a negative impact on attracting diverse people. In some ways Hollywood stereotypes work against us. However, a modern Defence Force is a multi-faceted organisation that thrives on diversity. While there are certainly some required traits, such as self-discipline and the ability to operate in difficult environments, there is a really strong focus on bringing out people’s potential and on leadership. For example, leadership in the Special Air Service (NZSAS) is more than being tough: it’s about earned equality and the qualities you bring rather than any concept of pre-determined pedigree, it’s about taking the right road over the easy road, an unrelenting pursuit of excellence and the ability to bring humour and humility to a situation.

Humour frees the mind. Humour can be creative, it can allow you to think of problems in new ways or just de-escalate tension and build mateship. And humility balances out the risks of the ego, something I see as vitally important. If you are going to go into harm’s way to rescue hostages you need self-confidence, but any strength overplayed becomes a weakness and confidence taken too far can become arrogance. To ensure that doesn’t happen, the NZSAS leverages the power of paradox – and focuses on humility instead. To me, egotism is the enemy of leadership.


1Institute of Directors. 2016. Getting on board with diversity. Wellington: Institute of Directors in New Zealand.

2Berry, J.W. 1997. “Immigration, Acculturation and Adaption.” Applied Psychology: An International Review 46 (1): 10. Berry proposes a four-fold model of acculturation strategies; assimilation, separation, integration and marginalisation. Research shows integration to be the most productive strategy.