Let's stop talking about diversity, start talking about readiness

(U.S. Air Force graphic/Staff Sgt. Benjamin W. Stratton)

(U.S. Air Force graphic/Staff Sgt. Benjamin W. Stratton)

INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey -- The good news is that we're making great progress as we seek to make our Air Force a more diverse and capable force.  The bad news is that too many Airmen are tired of talking about it, and too many Airmen are coming to work every day feeling that their career prospects are limited by the color of their skin, sexual orientation, or gender.

Our progress on the issue is due in large part to the fact that we've been talking about this for decades.  One unfortunate byproduct of this long discussion is that the issue itself has become misunderstood.  Those who are tired of talking about diversity are missing a critical point, perhaps because for too long we've been framing the discussion wrong.

As Airmen, we need to stop looking at the issue as a social or political one.  While the subjects of race, gender equality, equal rights, sexual freedom, and others are pillars of American political debate, the cold fact is that when the day comes that our Air Force is primarily worried about politics and social issues, we have a real problem. Our mission is to use air and space power to protect our country - no more, no less.

I argue that diversity is primarily a combat readiness issue for our Air Force. Our organization is more effective when we bring a wide variety of viewpoints and capabilities to the fight.  Conformity has a place in our service, and compliance is critical in many of our mission sets. That said, if we're not careful, we'll raise a generation of Airmen whose first thought is to secure a legal review, consult their functional manager, or hide in the regulations when it comes to tough decisions.

The fundamental characteristic that defines our Air Force is innovation.  We emerged as a service because we saw a better way to make war by exploiting the third dimension.  The path to future victory lies in similar innovation and flexibility, and these attributes emerge most readily when we surround ourselves with Airmen from all backgrounds and different perspectives.  I love compliance, but our best chance of victory in the future comes from adapting to a new environment, not rigidly fighting or executing based on the rules from the last war.  Those who doubt that diversity is in our interest need only look to the past.

The World War II generation proved that people of color could serve with distinction equal to any of their white colleagues.  More recently, tens of thousands of us got it dead wrong when we said that bringing women into fighter cockpits would weaken our combat capability. Diversity makes us stronger.  That's not to say, however that simply changing our demographic makeup will automatically improve our force.

Our nation needs a credible and lethal Air Force and the fact is that most Americans don't care what we look like.  For the most part, our Air Force is a meritocracy. In other words, most of the time, those who work hardest and produce the best results are the ones who get promoted.  As we seek to promote a more diverse force, our most important principle has to be that we'll never lower our standards in order to change our demographics.  In fact, the reason the military has been an effective platform for progress is that we maintain a high standard, and teach our people how to meet it.

Let's face it, the Tuskegee Airmen aren't famous because they were Black. They're famous because they have one of the most impressive combat records in history.  The fact of their skin color helped advance the cause of racial equality and deepens our respect and admiration for these pioneers. That said if they had been an ineffective unit, nobody would know their name.  The results matter most in our business, and we owe a great debt to the Tuskegee Airmen and those that followed for reminding us that all Airmen can do great things if they're properly trained, equipped, and led.  We will not succeed if we put the principle of diversity above the standard.

How then do we move forward?   I argue that institutionally, we have two imperatives. First, we need to cast a wide net when we recruit citizens to join our force.  Deliberately targeting a diverse set of recruits is a no-risk strategy.  Great Americans have proven over and over again that people of every color, gender, and sexual orientation can serve with distinction. The more our service looks like our country, the better off we'll be as a fighting force. 

Second, we need to ensure all of our Airmen have an equal chance to succeed.  The good news is that we're making progress in providing a climate free of overt discrimination.  Today, our Airmen report that nearly all of our units provide an environment mostly free of discrimination.  "Nearly all" would be a great accomplishment anywhere else, but in the Air Force, 100% is the only number that counts when it comes to providing the right climate for our people.  For our Air Force, simply not discriminating against people is not good enough.

Leaders - of all backgrounds - must work harder to expand our pool of promotable Airmen.  It is human nature to surround ourselves with people we have much in common with.  It is however, a dangerous practice to surround ourselves with those who look, act, and think like we do.  As leaders, we need to get outside of our comfort zone.  Take time to mentor someone who doesn't look or act like you. Seek out those who have a different opinion. Try to see your work center from the perspective of someone of a different race, sexual orientation, or background.

The next time you walk down a hallway with pictures of past Chiefs of Staffs or Chief Master Sergeants of the Air Force, ask yourself if you'd see the pictures the same way if you were wearing different skin.  The fact is that we're all prisoners of our own experience, and left unchallenged, we'll continually view the world through the same lens.  A fresh set of eyes will do wonders for your perspective. You will be amazed at the results if you take time to widen your circle.  The net effect will be to improve our Air Force and our Airmen...and make us more combat capable in the process.

Diversity is a combat multiplier; as professional Airmen, we owe it to our nation to hold a high standard, and teach all of our Airmen to meet it. Along the way, expand your horizons, surround yourself with fresh perspectives, and actively work to walk a mile in the shoes of those who aren't exactly like you.  Senior Airman Jean-Pearce Jenkins said it best:  "We are all citizens of America, and we're all Airmen."  He's right - and America is counting on us.