Recently an Under Secretary talked to a group I was in, and he said the three things he looked for in his personnel were dissent, diversity, and agility. He encouraged dissent early in a project or discussion but discouraged it later once a decision had been made. He also encouraged diversity in the understanding of ideas and approaches to different political situations. Lastly, he highlighted the critical concept for someone serving overseas – agility – the ability to think and understand quickly…because for an AFRICA OSC things change daily. Dealing with dissent, diversity, and agility is vital, and how you message them is also crucial.
What is Dissent and is it bad or good?
Dissent: the expression or holding of opinions at variance with those previously, commonly, or officially held.
Dissent is most helpful at the beginning of a discussion or an idea as long as the dissent is constructive and helps the group or the decision makers in informing them on aspects of their decision for future policy/ideas (e.g., RSWG). Sometimes your dissent will not be enough to sway a group decision (e.g., STRWG). More often than not some AFRICA OSCs submit dissenting opinions after the fact (e.g., bad emails to the COCOM). In doing so, they fail to understand that the train has already left the station, and their dissents, albeit right, are dead on arrival. An excellent example of an inadequate response to a component’s call out message is below. To provide some context, this was a reply all email to a survey about NCO training.
“I am sure you have been receiving mostly positive responses because in theory it’s a good idea. However, below I offer you some mixed responses from those who are working day in and day out with HN NCOs and Os and have dealt with the passport stampers who never truly brought anything to the fight.”
The email starts off well as a dissenting opinion, but then quickly moves out of the dissent category and into being rude. To call something a “theory” and a “good idea” in the first sentence automatically discredits it in total and does not provide the proper introduction a dissent needs. Then to say those “who are working day in and day out with HN NCOs and Os” tells the readers that those who aren’t AFRICA OSCs (or other AFRICA OSC staff members) don’t know what (really) is going on. Lastly, to classify non-AFRICA OSCs as “passport stampers who never truly brought anything to the fight” is where this dissent moves into being rude.
This dissent moved into the rude category by 1) discrediting the entire idea as a theory and good idea, 2) believing that those who aren’t AFRICA OSCs have never served as an AFRICA OSC, and 3) classifying our senior leaders as people who are just there for a vacation and tdy funds.
The below BLUF is a correct but perhaps it is too blunt of an overview of what some AFRICA OSCs believe of engagements. AFRICA OSCs put a lot of work to get a visitor to their partner nation, and sometimes those engagements end up not being worth that time, other times they are.
“BLUF: It needs to be a meaningful interaction. Otherwise, it is a waste of time, effort and money and actually hinders relationships as opposed to enhancing them.”
No one else cares as much as you do: Don’t throw yourself out with the bath water
It’s important to list a few other points of this dissenting email to drive the point home. Dissent should be well thought out, productive, suggest changes positively, and not have a personal or a one country perspective. This type of dissent is shared very quickly via email, and more than likely will affect the AFRICA OSCs evaluation at the end of the tour.
“With that being said, we’re trying to start a real program here. If someone is going to come, they need to get on board with what we’re doing. We don’t need spectators that just want to collect per diem by the pool; providing 30 minutes of dime store advice the afternoon that they’re leaving. That kind of behavior only propagates the problem. Additionally, providing a dozen different programs, each only half funded and half thought through, doesn’t do anyone any good. We want continuity. This program will succeed because we are here long term and are building relationships with a shared goal between the partner nation and us. We have already made good footing with the XXs at their Staff College and hope to reach the instructors next. After that, we’ll get deeply involved with the XXXX courses in hopes that we eventually convince them to create their own mentorship program.”
Perhaps the author of this email could have just stated the reasons why this request would not work. The components are stretched as thin as AFRICA OSCs are, one less country to worry about helps them focus their efforts. Telling the components and the combatant command that they “don’t know what they are doing” is just wrong. Most components are full of prior AFRICA OSCs who are now senior ranking. Informing them of why their “good idea” won’t work across the board is like a private in her foxhole telling the battalion commander in her headquarters tent that the approach of one machine gun will not defeat the enemy. Dissent for an AFRICA OSC must be either focused on why something won’t work with the AFRICA OSC’s partner nation or suggestions on how to improve the program overall to work with the AFRICA OSC’s partner nation and perhaps all AFRICA OSCs partner nations.
I recently heard someone declined an invitation by the CCMD before actually delivering it to the partner nation. I couldn’t believe that the AFRICA OSC had moved into the position where they thought they had the authority to do that. Even if the AFRICA OSC already knew the invitation would either not be filled (as possible in the case of an NCO request), or the AFRICA OSC knew the invitation was too late to get a visa, it is not the place of the OSC to say no to the partner nation nor to the CCMD. Granted it is the place of the AFRICA OSC to advise both parties and ensure they are aware of the facts, but overtly saying “no (insert country here) is not going to do that” is not the place of an AFRICA OSC, unless the partner nation has told the AFRICA OSC no first. The AFRICA OSC should instead forward the request and when it is denied say “the partner nation said they cannot fulfill this request.” The “Dissenting AFRICA OSC” must think regionally and globally, not only within one’s foxhole. The words and forum to communicate that dissent are as essential as the actual dissent. Overall, for an AFRICA OSC to have an active dissent, you must have done your homework from your perspective and others.
What should you do when your dissent is not acknowledged?
The first thing you should understand is that a majority of the personnel dissenting against your dissent have been in their positions longer than you have. They just have more historical knowledge than you do (specifically DoS peeps and most of the DoD civilians (most of which are retired FAOs)). The key to your dissent should always be based upon non-biased factual aspects on the ground. Others at the table analyze your capabilities, and also know that your predecessor’s opinion may have been skewed (or not and now yours is). If you dissent on something, have some facts behind it, and some ways to improve things. Perhaps if your dissent is not accepted, then you should propose an alternative option. Dissent is always best presented with aspects of diversity and agility.
Don’t throw yourself out with the bathwater: Instead, pour the bath
Diversity: the state of being diverse; variety.
There is nothing wrong with being diverse, in fact, you should strive to be diverse, especially outside of your service. Too many AFRICA OSCs are really good within anything concerning their service. Navy AFRICA OSCs know their partner nation’s navy really well, Army AFRICA OSCs…etc. It is up to the AFRICA OSC to diversify yourself as you are in a joint and interagency position. Look at every single way that you can expand your knowledge, your perception, and understanding of the different organizations that an AFRICA OSC works with. Read the commander’s intent, mission, and bio of all the components that work in your partner nation. Relook your portfolio – is it diverse or is it concentrated on one service? Relook your contacts, do they all speak the same type of military talk that you do (e.g., Navy, Army, Air Force, or Special Forces)? Open your mind, and it will be amazing the perspective you might just obtain.
Is there a problem with being too diverse? Yes, of course, there is. Often times in our remote posts we forget where our flag pole is. We forget who’s perspective matters. If you find yourself “in love” with the partner nation more than your own country, than maybe you’ve gone off the reservation, and become too diverse. The same goes with Departments within the United States Government – yours is the Department of Defense – don’t forget that.
Once your dissent is overridden, what should you do to prove your comments wrong when a leader doesn’t accept them?
Agility: ability to think and understand quickly.
Continuing on with a dissent even after a senior leader has chosen otherwise is difficult for most people. Especially for AFRICA OSCs when they have to put so much effort into something just to get the simplest event accomplished. So once a decision has been made that is counter to your recommendation or opinion how do you support their non-concurrence of your dissent? Basically, how do you help your senior leaders prove yourself wrong?
How do you prove yourself wrong to be a part of the larger team?
Agility is critical for an AFRICA OSC as they must think quickly in meetings with their partner nation, they must access the situation, the exact words that are being used and the cultural insight of those words, and think about what the CCMD’s priorities are – all at the same time. Agility allows the AFRICA OSC the ability to access that their dissent is perhaps misplaced, miscommunicated, or just bad timing and quickly adapt using their comprehension of the diversity concept and adjust their recommendations accordingly.
No one likes crappy emails from AFRICA OSCs who think they know more than everyone else. Dissent when it is constructive and provide solutions, not complaints. Be diverse and think with a Joint Interagency Intergovernmental and Multinational mindset. Be agile, not concrete.
Disclaimer: I have sent one or more crappy emails as an AFRICA OSC, but I did not send the one mentioned in this blog. Mine were more than likely as bad, better, or worse. They key here is if you find yourself writing a passionate email, think about who will read that, and what they will take away from it. Will it improve the case of your dissent or not, will it display your diversity or paint you as living in a box, or will it display your inability to understand the environment in which you are operating?