The importance of leadership on military effectiveness cannot be overstated: “many factors decide the outcomes of battles,” and “leadership is often the most important” (MCoE, 2018). However, US military underestimations in recent conflict regions, such as Afghanistan, have been attributed to a failure of leadership to understand and communicate effectively with both host cultures and foreign coalition partners  (Stavridis, 2021).

In an increasingly globalized world, it is necessary to evaluate how US military leadership principles may benefit from incorporating and understanding the importance of global leadership. Global leadership may be defined as the ability to lead, influence, and bring about a significant change by “facilitating the appropriate level of trust” in a complex cultural environment (Jeong, Lim, & Park, 2017). Tantamount to global leadership is the ability to understand and effectively operate in a foreign cultural environment, otherwise defined as intercultural competence. 

This article will establish the importance of exercising intercultural competence to understand how to use global leadership most effectively depending on cultural contexts of host cultures and foreign coalition partners. As a side note, stating that the US military has a global leadership problem is not to say that the US military disregards the importance of culture. On the contrary, US military scholars have written plenty of dissertations and books on this topic, but there is a paucity of information, understanding, and instruction on how cultural contexts effect our leadership capability globally (global leadership), as leadership cannot devoid itself of situation nor culture (Rickley & Stackhouse, 2022).

Global leadership is a relatively new (Osland, Nielsen, Mendenhall, & Bird, 2020) and growing field, born out of the necessity to address leadership needs in a globalized world to be able to lead across cultures (Saltsman & Shelton, 2019, p. 151). Park et al. describe global leadership development as a complex process which takes concerted effort in conjunction with experience in various cultural settings, and time (Park, Jeong, Jang, Yoon, & Lim, 2018) (Saltsman & Shelton, 2019).

In the past, the US military has incorporated some aspects of global leadership into various training modules via “cultural training,” and in some cases creating specific tactical teams, such as Human Terrain Systems (HTS), to facilitate understanding that comes from the development of global leadership. However, these programs failed for three specific reasons. 

First, a lot of resources were poured into large programs aimed at addressing cultural understanding. These programs were mismanaged and failed due to broken leadership and organizational culture, fraud, racial and sexual harassment, and ethical issues, as detailed by Evans (2015). This mismanagement eventually led to the demise of the HTS program. Concomitant with the fall of HTS was the diminishing influence of programs also associated with cultural training and understanding, as described in the book The Rise and Decline of U.S. Military Culture Programs 2004-20 (Fosher & Mackenzie, 2021).

Second, the waning of these programs can also be associated with the way in which culture was taught within their curriculum. The majority focused on operationalizing culture, which is to say that learning another’s culture was taught to gain a military advantage, which leads to low-level understanding, which leads to low level interaction, which leads to short-term mission objectives that fail to understand the greater role that culture plays in the understanding of time, communication, and relationship building. Preliminary data suggests that culture taught in this fashion reinforces one’s ethnocentric views, as opposed to increasing intercultural competence.  

Finally, these programs focused only on cultural training, which is in and of itself only a small aspect of being able understand, communicate, and lead with a global mindset. This sharp focus, although a necessary attribute toward developing better global leadership, inhibited these programs in the long run, as those trained often found it difficult to use the specific information and translate its effects to local leadership and cultural contexts (Edmondson, 2021).

Global Leadership and the Military

Leadership is one of the most important aspects of military training (United States Army, 2019). However, military “leadership and organizational models borrowed from corporate America and applied in the mountains of Afghanistan” do not “translate” (Edmondson, 2021, p. 1). In talking about global leadership with several military acquaintances that served in the Middle East over the last decade, most of them told me to go “pound sand” over the idea that culture had anything to do with their mission.  They were taught what not to do via a list of culture taboos, but they were there solely to complete a mission. 

The point is complex, but in basic terms it can be understood within the juxtaposition of high and low cultural context. American culture tends to be a “low-context” culture, which means we see ourselves as the masters of our fate, we are object and mission-oriented, and we prioritize the ability to execute objectives over an often short and efficient period. Low-context cultures also have a direct communication style, where it is acceptable to communicate any differences or disagreements directly to the person with whom we have a disagreement.  Our leadership skills evolve out of this context.

However, these skills do not translate when applied in the Hindu Kush. High-context cultures, such as Pashtun (Pashtunwali) culture in areas of Afghanistan, have a different view and understanding of time, fate, control, relationships, and communication. Where low-context cultures communicate directly, high-context cultures view that as potentially offensive and will communicate in indirect terms, often via a story or a parable, so as not to cause offense by directly calling out an individual. For example, in the media clip produced by the news outlet The Guardian (McHugh, 2008) the leadership of Charlie Company (which unit?) became frustrated with a Pashtun tribal leader because they ask him direct questions that are related to their objective of security in the area, and in response, speaking indirectly, the Pashtun leader tells them a story about ants taking wheat from a field. They ask him again to tell them about the security in the area and he responds by saying, “I just told you…about the ants.” 

Adding to this communication example, American leadership principles are based on low-context American cultural values. We speak directly to people to change their behavior, and often we do not take offense from this direct interaction by saying “it’s business, not personal.” Taking this leadership approach in a high-context culture would cause grave offense, and in return, receiving correction from a high cultural context in an indirect method comes across as passive aggressive to those of low cultural contexts. These high context views are oftentimes in direct opposition to American leadership practices and imposing American-centric leadership strategies within these cultural contexts has negative consequences, which is manifested by those in the host culture as an unwillingness to cooperate.

This is the call for the development of global leadership. Until we develop interculturally competent leaders who understand whom they are leading, we cannot expect to lead globally, or develop leadership practices that are appropriate to the cultural context. The development of global leadership skills, across military ranks, is necessary to understand and effectively operate in an ever-connected world. Research on the effective implementation of global leadership skills is in its infancy, but research to determine which variables and attributes are most effective is currently being done at the US Air Force Academy. What we know now is that global leadership is needed to effectively understand, and, if necessary, operate in conflicts zones across the globe. 

Kelly Lemmons, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Geosciences at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.


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The 2021 Edition of the Journal of Peace and War Studies (JPWS)

2021 cover to the peace and war journal

The 2021 issue of the Journal of Peace and War Studies gives special focus to the theme, “Preparing Military Leaders to Effectively Resolve 21st Century Security Challenges.” Its publication and theme coincide with the 2021 International Symposium of Military Academies (ISOMA), which took place October 4-8, 2021, at Norwich University.

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