June 15, 2012

Leading across ‘tribal’ barriers

Commentary by Lt. Col. Clifford Rich
318th Training Squadron

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas (AFNS) — Twenty-first century technology and the 24/7 news cycle have made the world “smaller,” but over millennia human nature has not changed. We long to identify with and belong to a tribe. The myriad of patches, uniforms, ranks and patchwork of partner nation flags bear witness to that constant within our armed forces.

Competition normally serves as a healthy catalyst that challenges us to give our very best. But where ignorance or artificial barriers serve to frustrate the free exchange of ideas and lessons learned, “tribal” tendencies lead to lost opportunities, duplication of effort and waste.

Cross-talk and learned lessons can’t be accomplished when leaders are focused only on that which affects their “tribe.”

True leadership demands you ask yourself two fundamental questions: “Who else would benefit from knowing what I’ve learned?” and “I wonder if anyone else has dealt with this issue?”

From a more pragmatic standpoint, the growing budget scarcity we’re faced with demands that leaders seek innovative ways to team with nontraditional partners, better collaborate with existing mission partners, and encourage innovation across the Department of Defense enterprise as well as the interagency landscape. You may have to be the one to break the ice!

In a recent speech to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey spoke of “building partners” as the second pillar of the strategy to rebalance U.S. forces.

He also described 21st-century adversaries as networked and decentralized. He further stated, “We have to find ways to be a network ourselves … and that means a network of interagency partners internal to our government.”

Despite the increasing mandate for greater interoperability with the armed forces of our allies, effective partnering with other nations at the macro-level will continue to be a slow process if we cannot first learn to improve our capacity for teaming at the micro-level with those who reside on the same installation and in the same city.

Look around Joint Base San Antonio on any day of the week. Mission partners are already hard at work smashing stovepipe mindsets and reaching across “tribal” barriers.

Among the flurry of diverse activities, you’ll see a variety of ranks and service branches as well as partner nation students, instructors and administrators on the respective campuses of the Defense Language Institute English Language Center and the Inter-American Air Forces Academy.

Ultimately, whether you wear a suit or uniform to work, members of the armed forces are part of a much broader team than the unit to which they are assigned. Leaders must encourage their personnel to seek out teaming opportunities and embrace the broader sense of purpose that comes with being less tribal.

Will you lead by example?

“Individual commitment to a group effort — that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work,” said Vince Lombardi, a former National Football League coach.

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