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Retired four-star challenges workforce to not “walk past” inclusive diversity issues

By Jordan Bishop, DIA Public Affairs

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The Defense Intelligence Agency and DIA Director Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley Jr. virtually hosted retired Gen. Vincent K. Brooks as part of the Agency’s MasterMinds series, Aug. 28.  

Brooks served as an Army officer commanding large, complex military organizations for more than 42 years before retiring from active duty in 2019. He addressed the Agency on the importance of inclusive diversity and representation in the workplace.

In his welcome, Ashley noted the parallel between Brooks’ remarks and that exactly 57 years ago civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic, “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

“There is a national dialogue on diversity and inclusion … and we want to make sure we continue that dialogue with the DIA workforce,” said Ashley. “Today, as we have this discussion with Gen. Brooks, it’s fitting that on the [National] Mall, there is a march to draw attention to racial discrimination.”

Perspective

Picking up where Ashley left off, Brooks said it would be appropriate to start with the current national situation.

“Depending on what your background and experience is, you’re going to see [the current national situation] differently,” he argued. “And if you only insist on seeing what you see, you’re going to miss part of the story.”

Brooks then explained the propensity for people to disavow alternative perspectives from their own.

“My point is not to highlight the ills of today, but to recognize that the ultimate ill is the peril of trying to be right,” he added. “If there is a hindrance to diversity and inclusion, it is the sense of having to be right.”

According to Brooks, the challenge society faces today is to think differently about what individuals feel and were taught. Rather than forgetting their ideals, Brooks suggested people should seek out others to build upon. Instead of being right, he argued, being better informed goes further in having better diversity and inclusion in society and that diversity of thought requires hearing and understanding the perspectives of others.

Brooks weaved this principle into an example fitting for DIA and its mission to provide foreign military intelligence. He posed a scenario where two analysts, one focusing on a country’s long and complex history and the other who focuses on the same country’s emergence post-World War II, have varying perspectives, and that intelligence customers could benefit from having insights from both analysts.

The wisdom of crowds

Diving deeper into diversity of perspective, Brooks said diversity of participation generates even greater differences of perspective. He referenced James Surowiecki’s book “The Wisdom of Crowds” that cites examples where people with diverse backgrounds look at problems from various angles to solve issues previously unanswered.

Moreover, he pointed out the natural tendencies organizational leaders have to hold meetings with only the highest representations of the organization’s various facets “sitting at the table.” Brooks noted that this is often a disservice to decision makers as entire teams with diverse perspectives are being filtered through one person. He challenged decision makers to call upon “the others” in the room who might not be sitting at the table to provide an unfiltered perspective.

“That’s how you harness the wisdom of the crowd,” said Brooks. “It must be done intentionally. Diversity is about having the right collection of people with different views, different perspectives because of who they are, where they came from, and what they do. Capture insights from them and [do] not accept the collective view that’s been filtered.”

Walking past

Brooks asked viewers to consider the DIA promotion system and to look at how diverse their organization is. He challenged the audience to look critically to see if all areas of diversity were present.

“Is [your organization] ethnically diverse? Socially diverse? Geo-economically diverse?” he asked. “Are there competing views in the same room? Do we select and promote based on diverse thought?”

Brooks tied this to the juxtaposition of mandated diversity and natural practice. He cited examples of businesses he’s interacted with that implemented mandates to address gender diversity, but are now facing issues with ethnic diversity. He argued that naturally practicing inclusive diversity looks holistically at the entire system of personnel management – from recruiting to promotion – as the best practice. Otherwise, organizations are “walking past.”

“Recruit with diversity as an intention,” said Brooks. “If not, you’re walking past a pool of candidates. … Cultivate the rare fruit. … Identify people early, invest in their development. Don’t walk past.”

Brooks argued that if diversity is the goal, people and organizations have to be deliberate.

“It doesn’t happen by itself. It may in due time, but the fact that we’re 57 years from the March on Washington and having the same conversation says that it’s not going to happen by itself … Diversity is a repetitive behavior and it must continuously be addressed.”

Diversity without inclusion is hollow

While Brooks established that diversity of perspective is important within an organization, he reminded the audience that it means nothing if all employees are not included.

Brooks shared a story about his father, also an army general, who encountered an embarrassing moment due to lack of inclusion. The story placed his father at Fort Bragg, North Carolina during a time the Army was still struggling with a recently issued desegregation order. The young captain walked into a laundry facility, passing a sign that said “whites only.” Assuming the sign referred to clothes, Brooks’ father was highly offended when confronted by another man asking whether or not he could read.

“Diversity without inclusion is hollow and is demeaning for the unincluded,” said Brooks. “… [My father] was part of the diversity of the army at the time, but was not included. Diversity and inclusion must go hand-in-hand.”

Brooks asked viewers to think about inclusion and what happens when everyone is not involved; how demeaning and degrading it is for that person. He shared a story about his time at West Point as an example. As a young African American cadet, Brooks wanted to be included. This meant leading cadences, often about female sexual conquest. In hindsight, Brooks, who would later apologize to his classmates, acknowledged that he was not including his peers. Particularly women who, for the first time in history, qualified and were admitted to the military academy just as the men had.

“If inclusion means ‘I accept you as you are, as long as you’re willing to be just like me,’ … that’s the wrong way of pursuing inclusion,” he said. “When you compromise something that’s important, that’s also the wrong way to be included.” 

I’m counting on you

In his closing remarks, Brooks reiterated the impact perspective can have on DIA tradecraft, including understanding the perspective of an adversary, arguing that empathy is a reflection of inclusion. He posed the challenge of removing nuclear weapons from North Korea. As a four-star general who commanded more than 650,000 Koreans and Americans, he argued that a resolution is difficult because of a “cultural conundrum” in how western and Asian cultures gain trust – that they are diametrically opposed.

“If we don’t recognize that by having an inclusive view that includes some degree of empathy for our adversary … we’re going to miss the mark,” Brooks explained. “I’m counting on each of you to make it different at DIA, counting on you to be deliberate in your approach to diversity and be more thoughtful about what inclusion really means. If you do that, DIA will be even better.”