by MSG Carson Morris
An era of unparalleled access to information and technology has led to a generation that is highly cognizant of political and societal issues. With unlimited access to information through the internet and smartphones, Generation Z is knowledgeable and holds strong opinions on various sensitive topics (Myers, 2018). These opinions and breadth of knowledge on political and societal issues epitomize the term woke, which makes two-way communication vital when building mutual trust with Generation Z. Generation Z makes up over eighty percent of the qualified military applicants that the military looks to recruit (Colwell, 2020).
This generation’s loss of trust and negative perception of the military has significantly impacted the accession mission (Shane, 2021). Engaged leadership is a requirement to ensure an organizational change in culture focusing on inclusion and diversity. All military leaders must adapt their leadership styles to accommodate discussions on political, social, and racial issues that emotionally burden their subordinates to ensure they bridge the gap between generations while fostering inclusion and diversity within their units.
Understanding Generation Why
Understanding the defining characteristics of Generation Z is vital in bridging the gap between generations. Generation Z is the demographic cohort born between 1997 and 2012 (Colwell, 2020). This generation has grown up entirely in the digital age with unprecedented access to information, technology, and social media. As a result, they have a unique perspective on the world (Myers, 2018). One of the defining characteristics of Generation Z is their desire to question and understand the world around them (Perna, 2019). There are several factors that drive the desire to understand the world around them, including their access to information, their experiences growing up in a rapidly changing world, and their exposure to diverse cultures and perspectives (Perna, 2019). Leaders take this desire to understand as a lack of respect when the reality is that this generation is simply curious to understand that which they do not understand.
This curiosity has made Generation Z more likely to question authority and traditional institutions. Growing up in a rapidly changing world, Generation Z has seen the impact of technology, globalization, and social upheaval, dramatically changing their worldview (Perna, 2019). As leaders in the military, it is essential that we accommodate and assist this new generation of Soldiers who question the status quo. By accommodating and assisting these Soldiers, leaders will ensure not to stifle their use of creative and critical thinking when producing solutions to problems. These critical and creative thinking skills will limit rigidity and enable adaptability (Department of the Army, 2019). These strengths of Generation Z make them more prepared to operate effectively when unexpected challenges arise since they will have expanded knowledge of operations due to understanding the why behind the order given (Department of the Army, 2019).
Leader development programs need to drive open and candid conversations, which will engage and expand the understanding of Generation Z. This development program must also focus on building cohesive and effective teams (Department of the Army, 2022). This program must allow the Soldiers to know the why that drives the decisions made during an operation (Department of the Army, 2022). Ensuring that this generation understands the why behind the action must be a priority to ensure a sense of mutual trust. Mutual trust is critical to fostering a positive command climate, which is instrumental in reshaping a culture that will align with the military’s inclusion and diversity initiatives (Ferguson, 2021). Politicians perceive these inclusion and diversity initiatives are making the military too woke and hurting the armed forces’ readiness (Rubio & Roy, 2022). However, this paper will identify and show how the political perception of wokeness is not the reality.
Perception Versus Reality
The topic of wokeness in the military has become increasingly relevant in recent years. The debate between politicians based on their sundry definitions of the term woke has caused a national divide. The term woke is United States (U.S.) slang referring to an individual or group being aware of political or societal issues, such as racial and social injustice (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). Politicians have taken the term woke and manipulated its definition to promote their political agenda. These political debates have made it vital for the military to maintain political neutrality. Political neutrality promotes troop cohesion while building the public’s confidence in the military (Davidovic, 2021). Political neutrality is necessary when building an inclusive and diverse force that will support future military operations.
One of the main arguments against the woke military is that it places too much emphasis on social and political issues rather than focusing on the primary mission of the military, which is to protect the country and its citizens (Rubio & Roy, 2022). Critics argue that the military should focus on training and preparing for war and that discussions of race and gender distract from this mission (Rubio & Roy, 2022). By maintaining one’s individualism, the military loses the component of one unified fighting force, serving the needs of its unit and country (Rubio & Roy, 2022). These politicized perceptions are not reality. By focusing on ridding the military of the woke culture, these politicians are creating a divide that is not allowing the nation to see the positive changes in inclusion and diversity the military is continuously making.
Inclusion and diversity initiatives are a focus across the Department of Defense, and this focus is strengthening our teams across the military (Ferguson, 2021). As leaders understanding societal injustices and being open to discussing them with their Soldiers is vital to learning what they value. The Army Values are the foundation of Soldiers. However, to maintain a relationship of mutual trust and confidence, they must be available to listen to the problems plaguing their Soldiers. If a leader can build these relationships with their Soldiers and not avoid these difficult conversations, Soldiers will become more productive, increasing readiness across the command (Department of the Army, 2020). For these reasons, being woke is not a detriment to the military. Being woke is an advantage that helps build cohesive teams with trust in their leadership that know they will have an opportunity to advance since inclusion and diversity are not hindering their career progression (Department of the Army 2022).
While creating an inclusive and diverse military is commendable, there are concerns that the current approach to wokeness and inclusion negatively impacts military recruiting and retention (Myers, 2022). The recruiting environment has been challenging since the start of the Covid-19 epidemic. However, the political perceptions of the current state of the military have divided the nation, only adding to the unstable recruiting environment. In the fiscal year 2022, the U.S. Army only met seventy-five percent of its recruiting mission, falling fifteen thousand recruits short of the recruitment mission mandated by Congress (Morgan, 2022). This recruiting failure is the biggest recruiting failure of the U.S. Army since it became an all-volunteer force in 1973 (Morgan, 2022). Currently, only twenty-five percent of Americans between the age of seventeen and twenty-four are mentally, physically, and morally qualified for military service (Walker, 2022). This twenty-five percent of qualified personnel is down four percent from the twenty-nine percent in the previous years (Kube & Boigon, 2022). While this number seems drastic, the genuinely alarming statistic is that only nine percent of that twenty-five percent of qualified young Americans have ambitions to serve in the military (Kube & Boigon, 2022). The propensity and ambition to serve are where the true political divide shows itself within the nation, as both political parties have their separate issues with the military and its policies.
When both parties have issues but are on opposite sides of the spectrum, it is easy to see how political agendas create a contentious recruiting environment. On one side of the spectrum, progressive politicians believe the military is not inclusive enough with too little diversity, which is why sexual harassment and equal opportunity issues constantly create negative press (Seyler, 2022). On the opposite side of the spectrum, conservative politicians believe that with the focus on inclusion and diversity, the military is not focusing on readiness to fight and win this nation’s wars (Seyler, 2022). This political divide has given reason for this already small percentage of qualified military applicants to question their decision because their support system sides either with the progressive or the conservative point of view. When both sides badmouth the military, it leads to a nation of young Americans that have no ambition to be part of the military.
The military has been historically neutral towards politics, but political debates such as mandated vaccines and forced inclusion policies have started eroding the apolitical military (Schake, 2021). This erosion has started to allow political leaders to preach policy changes that are forcing Soldiers to choose one side or the other. If the Soldier believes in progressive change, they are woke, and if the Soldier believes in conservative values, they are racist or sexist. By pitting Soldiers against one another, these politicians are successfully dismantling cohesive teams, which leads to a distrust that has an adverse effect on in-service retention (Schake, 2021). The divisive nature of these types of politics has left the military struggling to make its recruiting mission while negatively affecting overall military retention. If this divisive political agenda continues, it will not be long before the all-volunteer force is no longer all-volunteer.
Leadership 101 – A Shift in Culture
As a military, returning to a politically neutral entity is vital in mending the divides across the Army. Inclusion is a vital aspect of leadership in the Army and is the first step towards mending the force. An inclusive culture allows leaders to value, respect, and give equal opportunities to all within the organization. This culture will allow for maximum participation and contribution amongst the personnel of this organization (Department of the Army, 2017).This inclusive culture is essential in the Army because inclusion leads to better decision-making, improved communication, and increased collaboration among team members (Department of the Army, 2022).
When leaders create an inclusive environment, they are more likely to have diverse individuals with different perspectives and experiences contributing to the decision-making process (Department of the Army, 2022). An inclusive environment leads to a more thorough examination of different options and potential consequences, resulting in better decisions that consider the needs of all team members (Department of the Army, 2022). Furthermore, inclusive leaders are more likely to identify and address unconscious biases, which can lead to more equitable decision-making (Department of the Army, 2022). As a leader promoting inclusion and diversity includes effectively communicating with all Soldiers within the unit since it is critical when developing mutual trust and building a cohesive team.
The art of developing mutual trust and building a cohesive team will be essential tasks in changing a culture. Critical communication skills such as active listening, receiving feedback, and providing constructive feedback to the Soldiers within the unit will ensure development while allowing Soldiers and their leaders to maintain a shared understanding while accomplishing the mission (Department of the Army, 2017). These plans and initiatives that focus on building a culture of inclusion and diversity will foster unity, cohesion, and trust within the organization (Department of the Army, 2017). Listening is vital as a leader in ensuring that emotions that societal issues create for their Soldiers do not fester and lead to cracks within the organization. A unit that supports inclusion and values diversity allows for open dialogue, even when that dialogue may be critical of political or societal issues. When a leader shows that they understand and respect a Soldier’s opinion, no matter if the leader agrees with the Soldier’s opinion, it will shape a culture of maturity and respect ready to execute all Army operations.
Shaping a culture based on respect and improved communication through inclusion is vital to developing a sense of belonging amongst team members (Department of the Army, 2019). Individuals from diverse backgrounds are more likely to speak up and share their perspectives and ideas when they feel included and valued. This exchange of ideas can lead to valuable training opportunities based on the experiences of these personnel, which allows the unit to develop and become a learning organization (Department of the Army, 2019). As a leader, it is vital to lead by example when supporting progressive change since leaders are the example when it comes to the ethical treatment of all within the Army (Department of the Army, 2019). Inclusion and diversity are the goals of the military, and by using emotional intelligence and effective communication techniques, leaders can change the organization’s culture to meet the more significant intent of equality.
“Committed leaders continuously improve their organization, leaving it better than they found it” (Department of the Army, 2019, p. 6-1). A leader’s ability to develop subordinates to assume roles of greater responsibility is critical to affecting widespread change across the organization (Department of the Army, 2019). This expectation that the subordinates will one day be the leaders puts a responsibility on both the leader and subordinate to prepare themselves for the next level. It will be necessary for these leaders to understand how to be self-aware. Proper self-assessment and awareness will benefit leaders in building strong relationships with their teams.
Leaders who are self-aware are better able to understand their own emotions and thoughts, which can help them to be more empathetic and understanding toward their subordinates (Department of the Army, 2019). Self-awareness is a crucial aspect of leadership and is vital in the creation of leadership development programs in the Army. By continuously working on developing their self-awareness, leaders put a priority on self-development, which will help to better equip the leaders of the future (Department of the Army, 2019). The adaptability of leaders to ensure they maintain the lines of communication while trying to bridge the generational gap will be vital to building the leaders of tomorrow.
As leaders progress, they must remain adaptable in their leadership styles to accommodate discussions on political, social, and racial issues that emotionally burden their subordinates to ensure they effectively bridge the gap between generations while fostering inclusion and diversity within their units. Being open to understanding how younger generations think will allow leaders to tailor conversations and counseling sessions to improve overall communication amongst the Army. There must be an effort to create an open dialogue about agendas created by the politicians of the U.S. This open dialogue is essential for the development of mutual trust and shared understanding within the organization. Leaders must focus on implementing military inclusion and diversity initiatives through engagement, building unit cohesiveness, and positively affecting the organization’s culture.
Correcting these issues will increase the morale in the Army, which will increase the probability of positive social media and media. This increase in positivity will allow Generation Z to see the military as an organization that is accommodating to their needs, which will drive more qualified young Americans to see the military as an organization worth joining. The positivity from the qualified young Americans will assist in the recruiting and retention mission but will also increase the diversity throughout the Army, allowing for more opportunities to incorporate inclusion.
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MSG Carson Morris joined the Army in 2004 as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Specialist. He has served in numerous duty positions throughout his career, most recently serving as Operations Sergeant Major for the Northern California Army Recruiting Battalion. MSG Morris holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration with a Marketing Concentration. He is currently a student at the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy.
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