A New Strategy on Diversity: Aligning Leadership and Organizational Culture

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Written By JohnBarnes

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The Diversity Initiative

Speaking at a National Naval Officers Association Conference, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Mullen stated “diversity continues to be a leadership issue and critical to the Navy’s future success.” Everyone is familiar with the traditional challenges of diversity. However, concepts of diversity have evolved from inclusion and tolerance, to managing diversity, and recognizing the link between diversity and the emerging complexity of organizations such as the Navy. “A complex environment is one characterized by multiple critical elements that differ significantly.” Complexities such as joint collaborations, emerging technology, and globalization contribute to the challenges of organizational diversity within the Navy. Culture is not created by declaration; it derives from expectations focused on winning. We can only have a culture that encourages performance if we recruit the right people, require them to behave in a way that is consistent with the values the Navy espouses, and implement processes that will allow the Navy to be successful.

Differences of any kind make the task more complex. Differences such as proficiency in the use of technology or differences among warfare communities (i.e. Supply Corps, Aviators, Surface, etc.) will contribute to organizational complexity. If the Navy wishes to remain competitive in this complex environment, we must adopt “complex managerial strategies” drawn from multiple strategies.

If we accept that the leader’s job is to inspire and support the collective responsibility to create a better future for the Navy, then what are the tools to effectiveness? What characteristics must naval leaders have for this mission? There are key principles we must consider while striving to improve leader-follower relationships. First, organizational design affects culture which in turn impacts strategy formation. Second, leaders must have an understanding of their organization’s culture in order to identify the obstacles to effective leadership. Finally, by aligning the Navy’s organizational design and diversity strategy with culture leaders can modify their behavioral styles for desired outcomes by utilizing tools that engage sailors. In summary, I will identify obstacles to diversity and measures of effectiveness that commanders can implement to manage diversity.


The task of managing diversity in today’s rapidly changing environment is becoming progressively more difficult. Of course increasingly dissimilar kinds of people are entering the Navy and demanding different treatment. But some underlying forces are also present and pushing toward needed unity. Some of the reasons that spurn the need for diversity management include: “misunderstanding or distortion of affirmative action requirements,” the expectation that “only one group needs to change,” or an “appearance of ‘political correctness’ that can put off those with differing views.”

Though the increased existence of cultural differences within the Navy is a fact, there is also a culture that is already present. The Navy is a subculture of identifiable traditions and a strong national culture. This cultural foundation forms a viable base for mutual action, trust and support. It can help commanders build unity among their sailors. “The reporting relationships, business practices, policies, and even the physical structure of any workplace are based on the cumulative experiences of that organization.” The culture we know today is a result of the people who have made up the Navy over time, the larger culture they have created, and the total context in which we operate.

Leadership for diversity is an integrative activity that proposes one value system, one culture, around which many people can gather to accomplish useful results. “[Diversity management] requires the ability to think and act in certain ways, and that is what ensures that it is doable.” The Navy must accept the good values and reject those values and behaviors that are undesirable. Many cultures include values, ideals or behavior that work against effective, coordinated performance. While most would agree in that understanding the role of culture and other variables is important in a range of arenas.

However, in practice people often report that they experience “great discomfort when confronted with the need to discuss these issues and even greater discomfort when the discussion leads to an examination of the social inequities that are associated with membership in certain groups.” For example, American society typically does not accept cultural values that regard punctuality as unimportant or that condone nepotism; nor does it condone bribery, child labor or a host of other determined values or behaviors. These examples of unacceptable values are inimical to efficient interpersonal relationships.

As more people are entering the Navy with different cultural backgrounds, the pressure is on the corporate culture of the Navy to change. “In an effort to recruit and keep top-tier employees of all races and both genders, Fortune 500 companies have begun to address diversity issues in the workplace.” Established business expectations, rites and rituals will have to be altered for the new but different sailor; and some of the present cultural systems may need to be discarded. Navy leaders have a special responsibility with regards to diversity. “Not only must you develop yourself to handle the many diverse situations that occur in the workplace, you also are called upon to be a diversity leader– to help create a climate that values diversity, fairness, and inclusion.” As the Navy continues its transformation into the 21 century, leaders must consider how diversity will affect our strategic planning and policies.


The most important attribute of any planning team is its diversity. This diversity, however, is not about being politically correct or sensitive to a broad representation of sailors. The impact of diversity on strategy formation is not just to avoid age or gender discrimination lawsuits. Successful strategic planning depends on the team’s ability to ask new questions, perceive new insights, and imagine new solutions. It’s difficult for a group of individuals who share similar backgrounds, thinking styles, and experiences to think new thoughts. “Strategy innovation is a creative process, with a goal to identify markets, products, and business models that may not yet exist.”

“A lack of genuine diversity may be the biggest obstacle to improved performance within the [Navy].” If wardrooms are full of too many similar people, from similar backgrounds, who have ascended through similar routes then our diversity strategy is bound for failure. “The best ways for any organization to affirm that it has sufficient diversity is to ensure that the top management team is comprised of individuals with varied sets of skills.”


The Navy must create a new value system that supersedes values that are now inappropriate due to increased diversity. Of course all Americans should be open to new values and alternative ways to behave. But we need to match these alternative prospects with what we have now and only change when we are sure the change will add to the organizational design – new visions and values should not take us away from clear societal goals. Naval leaders must be in the vanguard of this change. They shape new cultures and redefine what’s acceptable within the Navy and for their sailors.
The goal of the Navy’s new Diversity initiative is about drawing the best talent from all aspect of American culture.

The Navy’s diversity initiative provides a strategic framework that is broken down into four areas; recruiting – who the Navy brings in; training and development – how the Navy instills values; organizational alignment – how the Navy continues the momentum of cultural change; and communications – how the Navy informs the fleet of where we’re headed. Admiral Mike Mullen’s address during the Total Force Diversity Day made it clear that the importance of diversity at every level in the Navy is a “strategic imperative” and reminded the attendees that the Navy is engaged around the globe. His efforts remind us that the Navy’s diversity strategy rests on the shoulders of our leaders and will only be as strong as their capacity to strive for successful results.


Two Scholars on leadership, James Kouzes and Barry Posner, conducted research on follower expectations by surveying thousands of business and government executives. They asked open-ended questions such as “What values do you look for and admire in your leader?” Four characteristics have consistently stood out among the rest: honesty, vision, competence, and inspiration. Leaders need to develop skills in accepting and using different people and methods to add to the Navy’s capacity to survive in a growing and increasingly complex world. We need to suppress feelings of fear and antagonism and increase the capacity to accept differences. Most importantly, we need to be proactive in seeking leadership training in situations of cultural diversity.


“It’s clear that if people anywhere are to willingly follow someone – whether it be into battle or into the boardroom, the front office or the front lines – they first want to assure themselves that the person is worthy of their trust.” Creating and maintaining a culture conducive of trust is becoming more difficult today. The character of the Navy is changing: becoming more diverse and less harmonious. The people coming into our organizations enter with different values and customs. These cultural differences in the people making up the Navy pose major problems in developing a culture of trust. Diversity itself makes the task of developing leadership more difficult.

Every sailor must put off falsehood and speak truthfully, “for we are all members of one body.” Honesty is achieved through Discretion and truthfulness. Discretion keeps our minds and focus on sound judgment, giving serious attention and thought to what is going on. It will carefully choose our words, attitudes, and actions to be right for any given situation, thus avoiding words and actions that could result in adverse consequences. Truthfulness means being straight with others and doing what is right. “It’s after we have contemplated our own actions, measuring how they align with our values, intentions, and words, that we are most likely to make a contribution of integrity to the world.”


From an organizational perspective, “leaders need to continually put the vision and mission (related to the purpose) in front of followers.” Sailors must understand the organization’s vision and know their role in support of the mission. Sailors expect leaders to have a “sense of direction and concern” for the future of the Navy. The leader’s role is to build a team out of different individuals. We distinguish leaders by the fact that they provide the vision around which group consensus can be sought. Leaders can lead only united, compatible colleagues who, in essence, volunteer to accept the leader’s values and methods. This is contrary to the prevalent view that a consensus-seeking process can ascertain vision. Common visions result from articulation by one person of ideals that the larger group can come to accept. The growing diversity in the Navy challenges the leader’s ability to lead “unless he or she can induce increasingly diverse people to accept common values, one vision and similar perspectives.”


Leadership is more than commanding authority and giving orders, it is people who understand and practice the art of listening and who make building trust a priority. In order to assure a productive work environment where sailors take responsibility, Navy leaders must posses and effectively demonstrate competence. Competent leaders have the ability to bring out the best in others. To enlist in another’s cause, sailors must believe that the person is competent and able to guide us in the right direction. “We must see the leader as capable and effective.”


Inspiration is the psychological feature that arouses someone to take action toward a desired goal. “Inspiring Leadership speaks to our need to have meaning and purpose in our lives.” Stimulation of the mind (spiritually and emotionally) to a high level of feeling or activity can only be accomplished through inspiration. Commanders can inspire sailors by relying not on their own understanding but rather on something greater than themselves. As the Apostle Paul declared “… we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual.”

Commanders inspire commitment by looking inward first, becoming aware of how they feel, and communicating a personal vision of the future based on personal knowledge of the past and realistic experience in the present. Focusing on the themes of your own consciousness should be what really drives leaders. “Leaders who develop their message only on the basis of what others might want invariably play to others and only try to please them.” Reactions to leaders will be different depending on the focus of the communication. If leaders only perform to others’ standards, sailors may be entertained, but if leaders communicate with authentic passion, sailors will respond with excitement and grasp a new and real possibility from an authentic experience.