Strength in diversity: Col. Dunn's perspective

  • Published
  • By Col. Troy E. Dunn, Capt. Anh-Minh Pham and 1st Lt Mark Ellis
  • 86th Mission Support Group commander
"None of us is as smart as all of us." Ken Blanchard

So, what's next in terms of diversity?

"I think that's the million-dollar question," Jessica L. Wright, the acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness recently said, "We've made significant progress [with diversity], but our work isn't done."

The next "Big Thing" in our commitment to creating a more diverse force is to promote, encourage, and incentivize a concept in strategic leadership known as diverse thinking. Diverse thinking is a deliberate, disciplined approach toward effective problem solving using a framework of divergent viewpoints from different backgrounds.

Several leadership experts are now addressing the importance of diverse thinking although they may refer to it by a different title. For example, in his book, How Successful People Think, the internationally recognized leadership expert, John C. Maxwell, wrote about "shared thinking" which mirrors very similar principles within diverse thinking. Both thinking processes value the thoughts and ideas of others and believe people can accomplish more together than they could on their own. Diverse thinking however requires more self-awareness and deliberate intention to observe, recruit, develop, evaluate, and retain people who can provide different opinions, perspectives, and positive contributions throughout the decision-making process.

One of the earliest pioneers of diverse thinking was General John W. Handy, former commander of the U.S. Transportation Command and Air Mobility Command. Already considered one of our nation's most prominent and disciplined strategic thinkers, General Handy advanced the concept of a deliberate, decision-making framework that solicited feedback, challenged assumptions, criticized alternatives, and tested conventional wisdom.

I still recall the lasting impression General Handy left on me during the Phoenix Stripe conference in late 2005. He mentored the attendees on how leaders should avoid "making the mistake of hiring people who are clones of themselves because they might miss someone who is an exceptional person with tremendous talent and skills." After the conference, he provided me more one-on-one insight about diversity. Then, he whispered to me, "That's what I expect from you." Although I am far from being another General Handy, I strive every day to make it a priority where I am applying diverse thinking when making tough decisions that affect Airmen and our Air Force.

Why is diverse thinking more critical now than ever before to mission success? Diverse thinking helps our Airmen win the fight and strengthen the team as we work together to accomplish the Air Force mission in air, space, and cyber. More importantly, it is the key component that will shape our future. Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James A. Cody recognized the importance of shaping the future by saying, "If we're going to develop leaders of the future, and ask them to do things today that they don't even know have to be done, we have to evolve." The evolution in Air Force leadership requires a different approach to solving ambiguous and complex problems.

Our Air Force soon will transform into a smaller force yet it will be more globally engaged than ever before. Although the force will be downsized, we need to upsize our ability to think and solve complex problems. We will retain the best Airmen who can perform in taking care of people and taking care of the mission. We expect those Airmen we retain to refine their ability to think critically, creatively, strategically, and diversely. Hence, our Airmen must be organized, trained, and equipped with critical, diverse thinking skills to navigate successfully across the ethnic, cultural, and religious fault lines within a very dangerous and volatile global security environment.

Our Airmen will continue to protect freedom and democracy around the globe. These outstanding professionals may have to respond quickly to imminent threats from rogue actors in Central and Southwest Asia, instability and violence in west and sub-Saharan Africa, aggression by a sovereign government violating another state's sovereignty in Eastern Europe, and other security concerns. Thus, these new demand signals are highlighting the imperative for more diverse thinking in our Airmen.

I leave you with these two charges:

1. Share your ideas. Be confident in your ideas. Then, be willing to share those ideas with peers, subordinates, and supervisors, even if it means that particular suggestion does not get selected. So, do not worry about your ego, your rank, or your position. Just share. At the same time, you need to be emotionally secure and welcome feedback and constructive criticism about your thoughts. You may be the individual who has that innovative idea that will make a difference for mission success. You and your ideas make a difference. Realize that it is not about you. It is always about what is in the best interest of our Air Force and national security.

2. Respect other ideas. In our Air Force, every Airman counts. We have the world's greatest Airmen who enrich our Air Force with their diverse thinking. Our Airmen come from different walks of life, different geographical areas, and different experiences. Value each other and treat each other with dignity and respect. We need all the great and innovative ideas for us to succeed as an Air Force and flourish as a nation especially during these challenging times ahead. When we operate within a climate of trust and respect, everyone wins. Our focus changes from competition to cooperation, from conflict to consensus, and from chaos to creativity.

So, what is next? Remember that we do the impossible every day. Clearly, we will continue to achieve mission excellence because we are a diverse and inclusive total force where diversity is an integral part of our core values and it defines us as Airmen. However, diversity is more comprehensive than national origin, gender, race, religion, age, culture, ethnicity, or even orientation. The true strength of our Air Force lies within the diversity of our Airmen and our diversity of thought. We must make diverse thinking a leadership initiative as the next step in our commitment to diversity and inclusion. I am proud to serve in the world's greatest Air Force powered by the world's greatest Airmen who fuel our force with innovation. Therefore, I leave you with the same words once spoken to me about diversity, "That's what I expect from you."