Inclusive Leadership in the Pentagon?

Ever since I met him, I have hoped this would happen someday, and it has! President-Elect Joseph Biden is nominating General Lloyd J. Austin III as the new Secretary of Defense.

Why am I using this space to write about a government nomination? Because General Austin is an inclusive leader – he demonstrates the kind of equitable, inclusive leadership that I believe we need more of in our world.  Helping others develop their inclusive leadership capabilities is at the core of the work I do. General Austin lives it everyday.

I met General Austin during a highlight of my professional career.  I was part of a 7-person team from the Center for Creative Leadership who spent 7 days in September 2010 in Baghdad, Iraq in US Green Zones, working with General Austin, Ambassador James Jeffrey, and their teams. They had just assumed command and responsibility of transitioning the US role from a military operation to a sustainable diplomatic and civilian role in Iraq within a 15-month time period.

The wisdom of General Austin and Ambassador Jeffrey was that they needed to create a “team of teams” of the US Forces and the Department of State in Iraq, rooted in collaboration and partnership. In the General’s words, “Our organizations really do have different DNA, and left to their own devices, they would work at cross-purposes.”  However well-intentioned, the vast difference between their cultures and in the way the organizations operate forms an historical boundary that tends to prevent alignment in meeting a shared mission.  As one of the leaders we interviewed said “it is like we come from two different planets – Venus and Mars.”   The General and Ambassador worked with our team to facilitate a 14-hour workshop that would transform two organizations that previously operated relatively independently from and differently than each other into two organizations that could work collaboratively and interdependently in service of their shared mission.  

During the time I spent observing General Austin interact with the Ambassador, their top leaders, our team, support staff from both organizations, and those who provided our meals or cleaned up afterwards, I saw a truly inclusive leader.  General Austin asked insightful questions, listened intently to the responses he heard, ensured that each individual felt valued and that they belonged in the space he created.  He treated each person equitably, ensuring that they had what they needed to be successful.  It does not mean that he treated everyone the same – it means that he understood that one person might need more instruction and guidance than another, and gave it willingly. 

Is inclusive leadership the most important capability desired in a Secretary of Defense?  While I have not been involved in the search process for this role, I have to imagine there are other skillsets ranked higher.  However, for someone to be successful in the position, they must understand how to create a culture where each member and key stakeholder is valued and has the support and resources to be successful in their own role.  General Austin IS this type of inclusive leader, and I hope he will be approved as our next Secretary of Defense and bring his leadership to bear.