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Vol. 5, No. 5
(626) 350-1500 Ext 102 

The Joys and Challenges of Diversity

Extraordinary achievements demand extraordinary leaders.

© 2007 William A. Cohen, PhD

There is quite a bit written about diversity nowadays, and many organizations require “sensitivity training” by their memberships. I’m not against this, but to me it elicits the same sort of reaction when I hear folks tell us that we need to learn “tolerance.” That is, we need to learn to “tolerate” diverse cultures, religions, minority groups etc.

Why We Must Do More Than “Tolerate” Those Who are Different from Us

Toleration doesn’t strike me as a very positive word. I tolerate the dentist’s drill, immunization delivered by “square needles,” and other forms of necessary minor pain and discomfort. So while “toleration” of different groups and sensitivity training may be desirable, I wish those who think up these descriptive words would do a better job of it. The truth is, despite our many problems with racism, sexism, and other forms of anti-minority bias and bigotry over the years, diversity is not new in the U.S. despite our image of being a majority of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

Our military isn’t a bad example. Even in our War of Independence in 1776, we had plenty of serving Catholics, Jews and volunteers of different religions from all over Europe. That made our Continental Army pretty diverse. By the time of our Civil War less than a hundred years later, the minority religions of Jews and Catholics both had serving generals,  and despite the Indian Wars and bias against native Americans at the time, Union General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant had a military secretary who drafted the Articles of Surrender which General Robert E. Lee signed at Appomattox. His name was Colonel Ely Parker and he was a full-blooded Seneca. Its taken longer, but for some time we’ve had generals and admirals of African-American, Asian, Hispanic, Arab , Armenian and other ethnicities, as well as women generals and admirals. We may be at war with militant Islam, but we have many leaders who are making significant contributions and who are deservedly reaching higher ranks in our armed forces who are Muslims. They are neither radicals nor anti-American. As time goes on, we will have more. And this in good.

In the business world, many who have been studying diversity in the work force have been surprised to learn that this diversity constitutes a competitive advantage over companies that are less diverse. This is not surprising in that diverse backgrounds, brings a different prospective, innovative approaches, better decision making, and other advantages. There are other countries that have more and sometimes better, resources than the U.S. and that have pretty much homogeneous populations. They aren’t  very diverse in their demographics. Yet even our enemies admit that we have pretty much what they’d like to have. I suspect our diversity over the last two hundred years had something to do with this American success story.

Our experience with diversity is a good thing, because we’re going to need more of it, a lot more. The world is increasingly becoming a global society. Multi-national organizations are becoming the norm. The need to be able to lead individuals of many different nationalities, religions, ethnic groups, cultures and beliefs and integrate them into a single powerful whole is becoming more and more prevalent and more and more important. Learning to lead groups made up of diverse members is no longer an option. It is a requirement.

The Star Trek Prototype

If we want to look at examples of successful leadership of diverse groups, we need look no further than the examples provided by Captains James T. Kirk and Jean-Luc Piguard, both captains of variants of the starship USS Enterprise on television and in the movies. Captain Kirk had a command group crew consisting of a Russian, a Japanese, an African-American, a Scotsman, a Southern doctor and a second in command who was from the planet Vulcan and who showed no emotion regardless of the stimulus. Captain Piguard of the “next generation” had a crew that was even more diverse. He not only had crew members from other planets like the Klingon Whorf, but a Lieutenant Commander who was a humanoid (Data) and a doctor who was a thinking hologram. Yet both leaders got the absolute best from their crews, week after week. Fiction, yes, but the good captains pointed the way.

Perhaps fortunately, we are not yet at the point where we need to lead out-of-world types, or electronic men. Still when this day comes, the basic principles won’t change. Our overall objective will still be to build a single team with common objectives, even though religions, cultures, and beliefs may differ. Star Trek crews came from widely different backgrounds, but they all wore the same uniform and they all had a common sense of a mission which they did their best to accomplish. Achieving that common uniform and sense of mission must be the objective of the successful diversity leader. There are other aspects to this test of leadership.

Obstacles to Success

There are a few obstacles to building a great diversified team which the leader must deal with. Basically they have to do with prejudice, discrimination and stereotyping, and the three are related. For example, accepting negative stereotypes about members of any group leads to showing prejudice and discriminating against them. Overcoming these three obstacles isn’t easy at times, but it is doable. Continuous attention to recognizing potential problems and proactively dealing with them is the solution.

Proactively Developing a Diverse and Unbeatable Organization

The first step to success is to understand that people are different and that these differences must be understood and respected. People are different even in groups that are basically homogeneous. I’ve told the following story before.

Jim Toth retired from the Marine Corps as a colonel and was one of my instructors at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. While rummaging through old bookstores, he found a little 99-page book written after World War I by Captain Adolph von Schell, a German infantry officer. Von Schell was highly experienced. He had served in combat throughout World War I, first in command of an infantry platoon, and later in command of a company. He wrote the book, Battle Leadership, while attending the Advanced Class of the U.S. Infantry School at Ft. Benning, Georgia in the years 1930-31.

The book related von Schell’s observations on leadership from the vantage point of a junior officer in the Imperial German Army. Toth realized the collection of lessons von Schell documented were as valuable in the present as on the day they were recorded. 

Captain von Schell’s lessons on battlefield psychology illustrates that individuals are different even in an organization that is not diversified. Reported von Schell, “As commanders we must know the probable reaction of the individual and the means by which we can influence this reaction.” To do this, von Schell suggested estimating the psychological aspects, as well as the technical aspects of a situation.

“A really classical example of this art of estimating a situation psychologically was shown in the year 1917 by a brigade commander. This General said, ‘Each of our three regimental commanders must be handled differently. Colonel “A” does not want an order. He wants to do everything himself, and he always does well. Colonel “B” executes every order, but he has no initiative. Colonel “C” opposes everything he is told to do and wants to do the contrary.’

“A few days later the troops confronted a well-entrenched enemy whose position would have to be attacked. The General issued the following individual orders:

            “To Colonel “A” (who wants to do everything himself):

“‘My dear Colonel “A,” I think we will attack. Your regiment will have to carry the burden of the attack. I have, however, selected you for this reason. The boundaries of your regiment are so and so. Attack at X hour. I don’t have to tell you anything more.’

            “To Colonel “C” (who opposes everything):

            “‘We have met a very strong enemy. I am afraid we will not be able to attack with the forces at our disposal.’

            “‘Oh, General, certainly we will attack. Just give my regiment the time of attack and you will see that we are successful,’ replied Colonel “C.”

            “’Go, then, we will try it,’ said the General giving him the order for the attack, which he had prepared sometime previously.

            “To Colonel “B” (who must always have detailed orders) the attack order was merely sent with additional details.

            “All three regiments attacked splendidly.

“The General knew his subordinates; he knew that each one was different and had to be handled differently in order to achieve results. He had estimated the psychological situation correctly. . .  Each one of them reacts differently according to his particular reaction. To sense this and to arrive at a correct psychological solution is part of the art of leadership.”

From von Schell’s story, we can see that individuals, all individuals, are different. How much more so are those from different backgrounds, cultures, values, and religious beliefs. Yet as leaders, it is our responsibility to build one organization with a synergy that maximizes the contributions of all in such a fashion that the contribution sum of all members together is greater than individual contributions added together. To do this, we must do the following:

1. Learn the backgrounds of your subordinates

All of the Star Trek series took pains to explain the backgrounds of a Spock, a Whorf, or a Data. The captains knew these backgrounds, and so did all the members of the crew. Everyone understood that you didn’t say or joke with a Klingon as you did a human. He came from a different background, and he could behave violently to what humans considered a joke. Neither captain nor crew insisted that Whorf behave the way they, as the majority, thought he should. His behavior and actions were respected so long as they didn’t violate the rights of other crew members.

2. Learn and understand the cultures which these backgrounds represent and treat others accordingly

It doesn’t take a lot of studying to understand that beliefs and requirements differ among differing religions, or that what is fully acceptable in one culture is not in another. It is the height of stupidity to expect that this would be so. So we need to learn about what others believe and when and how they worship and the religious requirements that must be observed. Sure, there are those that are not practitioners of any particular religion, and to them it might not make any difference. But though individuals may not be vocal about being forced to worship contrary to their beliefs or traditions, it does make a difference, and it is important to accommodate their needs whenever possible.

“The Golden Rule is a fundamental moral principle found in most major religions which says simply, treat others as you would like to be treated.”  There is however one issue that must be addressed in this simple definition: others may not want to be treated the way you would like to be treated. So to be true to the spirit of The Golden Rule, you should strive to treat others the way they would like to be treated. For example, for some time our military allowed non-Christians the same religious privileges as Christians. They were allowed to worship in their own way every Sunday, just like Christians. The only problem was that for Jews and Moslems Sabbath didn’t fall on Sunday.

3. Be scrupulously fair to all

Building an effective diverse organization is not about giving minority groups preferential treatment. For example, promotion should always be based on merit, not on minority status. Former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell wrote:

“. . .  preferential treatment demeans the achievements that minority Americans win by their own efforts. If affirmative action means programs that provide equal opportunity, then I am all for it. If it leads to preferential treatment or helps those who no longer need help then I am opposed.” 2

General Powell became the highest ranking officer in our armed forces not because he was given preferential treatment, but because he was the best individual for the job.

4. Whenever possible promote the days important to members of various diverse groups and explain their significance.

Of course, we cannot celebrate every holiday or special day of every group. But we can celebrate the most important days. Everyone in the  majority knows the significance and meaning of religious holidays such as Christmas or Easter, or national holidays such as Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July. We already celebrate them and we know what they stand for. But do we know the days important to others in our organization and what they mean?

5.  Commit to getting the job done

You, as leader, count. You are the leader and others follow your lead. You’re going to make mistakes. But if you commit to succeeding and keep at it you will eventual succeed. There is always a way. Leaders whose organizations reap the advantages of diversity commit and do things that other leaders simply won’t or fail to do.


To sum up, diversity is an investment, not a cost. The sooner you start making that investment, the sooner your organization will reap the benefits.


1. von Schell, Adolph, Battle Leadership,  (Quantico, Virginia: The Marine Corps Association, 1982) Originally published (Ft. Benning, Georgia: The Benning Herald, 1933).

2. Powell, Colin, My American Journey, (New York: Random House, 1995), p. 608.




There are truths on this side of the Pyrenees which are falsehoods on the other – Blaise Pascal, 17th century French mathematician


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