Marines with Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Division, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit conduct a leaders’ reconnaissance during Amphibious Squadron/Marine Expeditionary Unit Integration Training aboard Camp Pendleton, Calif.,March 15, 2015

Marines with Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Division, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit conduct a leaders’ reconnaissance during Amphibious Squadron/Marine Expeditionary Unit Integration Training aboard Camp Pendleton, Calif.,March 15, 2015 U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Jamean Berry

America’s First Female Four-Star on Diversity in the Military

What has the U.S. military finally realized about workforce diversity and mission success? Retired Gen. Ann Dunwoody spells it out.

When the Evil Queen looks into the magic mirror and asks the fateful question, “Who’s the fairest of them all?” she really just wants confirmation of what she already believes. When the magic mirror tells her something she doesn’t want to hear, well, all hell breaks loose. In our daily lives I call this misguided need for affirmation and tuning out other perspectives the Mirror, Mirror Syndrome.

Interest in diversity, especially in the military, is a relatively new focus area. It is too easy and convenient for folks to view it as the continuation of affirmative action and quotas for minorities and the disadvantaged. Policies established to promote equal opportunity and equal employment were often viewed as forced inclusiveness rather than recognizing that prejudices and biases existed and we needed policy in order to move forward.

Historically, all organizations of every demographic—­military, political, or corporate—have traditionally taken on the senior leaders’ characteristics. Once established, it’s a difficult paradigm to break. What I’d found in the Army—and I suspected that it wasn’t much different in corporate America—was that conservative, older, white males were making the primary decisions. That was just a fact. They were not evil people. Much of what I’m describing is a result of traditionally accepted roles for males and females. By force of habit they surround themselves with what they like to see: people to whom they can relate. They have the same education, the same mission focus, and the same experiences, and they look at problems through the same color lens. So it should be no surprise that they naturally have a tendency to agree. These leaders are often wildly successful. But in my view their organizations will never realize their full potential without leveraging the power of diversity.

I saw this firsthand in the corporate world when I met Ted Childs, the lead diversity officer at IBM, in the late 1990s. IBM is an organization that was at one time a clear reflection of the Mirror, Mirror syndrome: all white males, dark suits, white shirts, black shoes, and black ties. How does a white male know what a female likes or dislikes in personal computers? How does this guy know what a person from China likes in a personal computer? Or a Japanese or Hispanic consumer? They don’t. Childs, an African American, set out to demonstrate the power of diversity. He hired the best of the best—white males, females, Chinese, Japanese, African Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities—to help customize IBM’s products to best support the customer. Not surprisingly, revenues increased.

Although the power of diversity is sometimes hard to quantify, Childs definitely got my attention. His success revealed a few points: (1) diversity wasn’t about numbers or quotas—having one of these and one of those—it was about diversity of thought, and not just anyone’s thought but the best-of-the-best thoughts; and (2) these folks had to have a platform from which their ideas could be heard and implemented.

A new idea could easily be dismissed by a few heads shaking or simply by deft silence in the room. If I felt strongly about something, I would repeat it, and if I really felt strongly about something, I would have to raise my voice or throw out a four-letter word to get their attention: “You guys are coming up with the same old shit solutions that haven’t worked in the past!”

I remember specifically one heated discussion in the Pentagon concerning whether we needed to put a major logistics services contract supporting the war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan back out for bid, known as recompeting. At the table was the senior leadership of the Army; the highest-ranking uniformed generals along with the political appointee civilians who are the inner circle for the Secretary of the Army. The generals knew how difficult a re­compete would be for continuity in the war zone, but the political appointees were adamant that the Army must recompete the contract. One official stated emphatically that if we don’t, “The Army will get a black eye.” I couldn’t believe my ears! The General Accounting Office, Army Audit Agency, and our business case analysis all supported extending the in-place contract. Because it was my contract to manage, I had talked to the senior commander in Iraq and asked for his thoughts, and he said, “Ann, if we don’t get to keep the same contract, we’ll risk meeting the presidential mandate [timeline] for exiting Iraq.”

I also had a copy of the operational impact letter he had sent to the Chief and the Secretary outlining the risks associated with not extending the existing contract. So when the conversation continued toward directing a new contract initiative, I was mad. I straightened up in my chair and told the assembled group, “If you are going to demand we recompete this contract contrary to the analysis and against the advice of your senior commander in Iraq, then we better be prepared to tell the president that we may not make his deadlines to get our equipment out of Iraq.” They just stared at me, but in the end we extended the contract.

What I witnessed during my military career was a steady effort by leadership to better understand and appreciate the power of diversity. I watched the doors continue to open. When I joined the Army women weren’t even allowed to serve in the 82nd Airborne band, attend West Point, serve in units whose primary mission was direct combat, fly fighter planes, or serve on a tank.

While corporate America was discovering the value of diversity in winning over shareholders, the military was realizing the importance of diversity in waging and winning wars. In the midst of the longest period of sustained combat in American military history, General George Casey had the vision and courage to champion diversity. As troops continued to serve in Iraq following the capture and execution of Saddam Hussein, Casey unveiled a new task force charged with building on what should be the Army’s greatest strength.

Excerpted from A Higher Standard: Leadership Strategies from America’s First Female Four-Star General by Gen. (ret.) Ann Dunwoody, U.S. Army, with Tomago Collins. Reprinted courtesy of Da Capo Press.