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A Collaborative Mindset: Achieving Unity of Effort

Joint Task Force-Bravo, U.S. Southern Command Situational Assessment Team members meet with U.S. Agency for International Development representatives to discuss partnerships in the forward joint operations center at San Pedro Sula, Nov. 13, 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Elijaih Tiggs)

By Assad Raza

On February 4, 2021, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin Tweeted he will be leading a Global Posture Review of U.S. military forces worldwide. Moreover, he said, “We need to make sure we have the right capabilities in the right places & we are supporting the work of our diplomats.” Hence, leaders at all levels must be prepared to collaborate and integrate military activities with other organizations to meet national objectives. For this reason, leaders must develop a collaborative mindset to ensure unity of effort.

A collaborative mindset is a combination of several leadership skills that promote open communication horizontally and vertically among stakeholders, working toward common objectives. According to authors Heath and Isbell, these skills include: “recognizing and validating the needs of their fellow stakeholders; separating peoples’ positions from their underlying positions; listening for things that are never quite said; identifying overlapping commonalities; building trust while respecting differences; constructively navigating conflict.” These skills allow leaders to effectively collaborate with diverse groups to meet shared objectives at the tactical and operational levels. However, these skills are generally taught to military leaders later on in their careers.

Military leaders are usually introduced to joint and interorganizational coordination about halfway through their careers. For example, newly promoted U.S. Army field grade officers learn about interagency capabilities and coordination at the Command and General Staff Officer Course. Yet, this training is more focused on understanding the capabilities and limitations of different partners for joint planning rather than how to establish a collaborative effort in execution. Although this may be valuable for future operational staff members, it still overlooks the fact that most of the operations will be conducted by junior officers and non-commissioned officers at the ground level. Hence, it may be worth investing in developing these collaborative skills early on in military leaders’ careers.

Additionally, leaders with a collaborative mindset can promote teamwork among culturally diverse groups. For example, working alongside multinational forces or coordinating with local nongovernmental organizations toward mutual goals. Importantly, these groups may have different expectations or viewpoints that can cause frustration when attempting to collaborate. Therefore, military leaders at all levels must be able to manage complex relationships across multifunctional and multinational teams. According to Hanges et al., leaders “need to be nonjudgmental, tolerant of ambiguity, self-confident, optimistic, and emotionally resilient. These competencies help them moderate the frequency of conflicts, miscommunications, and tensions that arise with culturally diverse groups.” Moreover, these competencies contribute to collaboration and coordination among diverse groups to achieve unity of effort abroad.

The military is organized hierarchically, which results in a need for direct level leader development early on in leaders’ careers. Leaders need these skills to influence and motivate subordinates to accomplish the mission and improve the organization. However, a collaborative mindset can help leaders navigate and understand outside organizations’ interests to identify areas needing a more collaborative mindset to achieve shared objectives. This broad development will allow leaders to build trust and minimize tensions when working with diverse groups from multinational forces to interagency partners, leading to overall mission success across the range of military operations.

Assad Raza is an active-duty U.S. Army Civil Affairs officer serving at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). He holds a Bachelor of Art in psychology from the University of Tampa, a Master of Art in diplomacy with a concentration in international conflict management from Norwich University, and a Master of Military Art and Science from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.


1 thought on “A Collaborative Mindset: Achieving Unity of Effort”

  1. The verbiage is a little confusing, but I believe the author is arguing for more multicultural interaction training among junior officers and NCOs.

    If so, I agree that there should be more; yet, the actual direction of such training is rather confusing. The author is an active CA officer and, from his bio, I assume he is at least a field-grade officer – the junior officers and NCOs on his teams are already involved in enough multicultural interaction to beggar a member of the State diplomatic corps, yet he falls short on illustrating what lessons are to be derived from such.

    The underlying problem doesn’t lie with the author as much as it does with SECDEF Austin’s (assumed, from the article) CDR’s intent of “make sure we have the right capabilities in the right places & we are supporting the work of our diplomats.” This is entirely devoid of any actually direction beyond punting to DOS.

    If leadership is the process of providing purpose, direction, and motivation, then the soldier is fighting in a vacuum. A soldier could know a state better than its own PM – culturally, politically, linguistically, etc. – yet have no idea what to report without a clear goal.

    This is a leadership issue, not a training failure.


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