How does a leader bridge the gaps of religion, language and culture to build a cohesive and effective team with people from vastly different cultures?
Allies are really very extraordinary people. It is astonishing how obstinate they are, how parochially minded, how ridiculously sensitive to prestige and how wrapped up in obsolete political ideas. It is equally astonishing how they fail to see how broad-minded you are, how clear your picture is, how up-to-date you are and how cooperative and big-hearted you are. It is extraordinary! Let me tell you, when you feel like that about your allies, just remind yourself of two things: First, that you are an ally too, and that all allies look just the same. If you walk to the other side of the table, you will look just like that fellow sitting opposite. The next thing to remember is that there is only one thing worse than having allies – that is not having allies.”
– Field Marshall William Slim
We hear every day that our world is increasingly interconnected and that the teams we work with and lead are more diverse. What does this mean for organizational leaders? What unique leadership challenges do diverse organizations pose? Why is leadership in these settings so extremely demanding? How do we achieve that alignment of purpose without a common context?
Successful leadership of diverse teams requires creating a new group culture and shared purpose. Leading coalitions is a challenge as old as Western civilization itself. Our greatest cultural heroes from Achilles to the Rangers at Pointe du Hoc were part of warrior coalitions. Those great armies shared values and a culture that brought the Greeks and the Allied powers together against the common enemies of their times. While historical coalitions usually enjoyed the blessings of common languages, cultures, and values, today’s organizations are often far more diverse and have fewer shared values with much less in common culturally. Leading diverse organizations can be more challenging and often requires leaders to create a shared purpose and culture out of whole cloth where none exists. Often lacking true unity of command, coalition leaders must create unity of effort through commitment based influence founded on mutual trust and respect.
The primacy of personal influence is something most civilians miss when studying military leaders. Hollywood gives the idea that men march off to their deaths because another man with one or two more chevrons tells him to. This misses the mark badly. Men follow a leader out of something much closer to love and earned respect.”
Case Study Burma 1943 The Forgotten Army:
The 14th Army’s triumph in British India under the leadership of Field Marshall William Slim offers a study in effective leadership of an incredibly diverse organization under the most difficult conditions. Following many months of severe Allied losses and setbacks in the theatre, Slim took command of the newly created 14th Army in Burma in 1943. The 14th Army was composed of over one million men from all corners of the earth. They came from the armies of India, Nepal, Africa, China, the United Kingdom and its commonwealth nations, and the United States. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists who spoke countless different languages found a home in its ranks. At best, this sounds like the set up for a bad joke about “walking into a bar…” at worst, it is certainly a recipe for rancor and discord. Imagine the difficulties in leading such an organization under the best of circumstances… Slim understood that all of these differences would make command of the army very challenging. However, he grasped the importance of personal influence and building a common purpose and possessed a style of leadership well suited to his new command. This made all the difference and allowed the 14th Army to accomplish the nearly impossible.
In a speech to officers at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College many years after the war, which Brady already mentioned in his post on Slim’s Qualities of a Commander, Slim defined Command as “…the projection of personality…that mixture of example, persuasion, and compulsion by which you get men to do what you want them to do, even if they do not want to do it themselves.” You see, Slim understood that he could not rely on his position and rank to afford him sufficient influence. Success for the 14th Army required personal, commitment-based influence and a shared sense of purpose. Slim had to create that. As Army commander, he made an effort to visit each battalion in his million-man army to speak personally with his soldiers. He shared with them, in one on one conversations, often in their native tongue, his goals and vision and tried to learn from this diverse group what he could of their cultures, motivations and values. Slim made an express priority of conveying his vision and purpose directly to his soldiers despite the army’s incredibly vast dispersion and size. He did this because he believed the foundations of morale were “spiritual, intellectual, and material in that order.” He envisioned an army where each soldier believed his work was directly linked to the accomplishment of an attainable and noble goal in which leaders valued their men’s lives and placed an emphasis on providing as best they could for the soldier’s needs. This was truly revolutionary stuff for a British commander of his generation to think and say. “He believed that be they British, Indian, Gurkha or African, if they were told the reason for fighting, the justice of the cause and the importance of beating the enemy, and were kept in the picture … they would respond with enthusiasm.” He communicated his vision. Slim’s success shows the profound power of creating shared values, a shared organizational culture, and providing a shared purpose and vision. The most successful organizations today understand this as well.
Command is the projection of personality…that mixture of example, persuasion, and compulsion by which you get men to do what you want them to do, even if they do not want to do it themselves.” – Slim
The primacy of personal influence is something most civilians miss when studying military leaders. Hollywood gives the idea that men march off to their deaths because another man with one or two more chevrons tells him to. This misses the mark badly. Men follow a leader out of something much closer to love and an earned respect. Greatness in the most demanding circumstances can only be accomplished through a leader with strong personal influence with his soldiers. This concept has been discussed at length in business and management circles for some time. Slim understood this better than most. He recognized that his positional power as a British Field Marshall and Army Commander would not be sufficient to lead his new army.
Slim’s interactions with the American Lt.Gen. Joseph Stilwell demonstrated the power of his personal influence. General Stilwell, the commander in chief of all U.S. forces in the region, had a reputation as a maverick, eccentric, and borderline insubordinate, if brilliant, commander. The man’s personality was such that his nickname was “Vinegar Joe.” Draw your own conclusions… If there were ever a commander who held positional power in contempt and disregard, it was Stilwell. He had previously refused to serve under any British commander, dangerously dividing the already fragile coalition. He also expressed a strong and general dislike of the British officer class and of the British goals in the region. However, upon taking command of the 14th Army, Slim was able to win Stilwell’s admiration and loyalty. With an impressive combat record of his own, Slim appealed to Stilwell’s warrior ethos and, as a man of very humble origins himself, Slim was able to sympathize with the American’s republican distaste for the aristocratic trappings of many other British commanders. Slim convinced Stilwell to follow his lead. In doing so, Slim saved the coalition and brought the American forces back into the fight as part of the 14th Army that ultimately defeated the Japanese in Burma in the spring of 1945.
Slim shows those qualities of leadership necessary to build a successful coalition from an incredibly diverse and dispirited force. His wisdom rings true through my and Brady’s experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. Combat leadership across a language and cultural barrier requires skillful perception and introspection. Influencing men who are not formally under your command – or even in your army – don’t speak your language, don’t share your culture or worship your God demands that you explain the justice of your common cause and the importance of beating the enemy and that you keep them always informed and treat them with respect. They must trust you and you must trust them.
What analogies can we make to the world of business? What is the most crucial ingredient to building a shared culture? How can we achieve alignment of effort across cultural and language barriers?
 Field Marshall Sir William Slim Defeat Into Victory.
 Defeat Into Victory.
 Sir Geoffrey Charles Evans, Slim as Military Commander (London: Batsford, 1969), 215.