Inclusion Lessons From Iraq

For many in the U.S., Iraq is a far away place where bloodshed and oil are the major outputs. In the diversity profession, many of us simply don’t know about Iraq and frankly, some of us don’t care. We see it through a political lens.

This article is not a political one. It is about inclusion, and inclusive leaders seek out and listen to various points of view. I challenge us to think about the leadership lessons on inclusion we can learn from Iraq and put them to work in our organizations.

The U.S. has withdrawn its troops from Iraq, but there is blood in the streets. It is too simple to look at the situation as an ongoing tribal war. Much like the organizations in which we work, Iraq is complex. There are claims that many in the Iraqi army have taken off their uniforms and abandoned posts, providing a path for the terror organization ISIS to advance. Some question whether the U.S. should have intervened in Iraq in the first place.

Iraqi Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki failed to seek out and encourage different views and in many cases stifled them. In fact, he did as the non-inclusive leader does — he punished divergent views. While promising the world that he would listen to divergent views, he actively removed those voices from his cabinet. The result is an Iraq where only a few can see themselves in plans for the country’s future. Thus, the many divergent voices who have been excluded have no incentive to ensure the country’s stability.

What does this have to do with inclusion? Everything.

Think about your organization. There are many personalities, competing factions and political agendas. To ensure durable solutions, the inclusive leader makes political decisions. Those solutions will only be durable if the leader encourages debates from different factions. Al-Maliki’s actions are no different from those of the leaders of many organizations where divergent views are just the buzzword of the day, a feel-good formula that fails.

This is not al-Maliki’s first term as prime minister. In his previous term, he excluded divergent voices from his cabinet. Think of your own companies or situations where leaders exclude divergent voices without consequences. Who in those organizations spent time assessing the impact of such inclusion? Often, no one.

We have all heard many TV and radio commentators call for “a political solution.” That political solution goes back to the recent elections in Iraq, where no single party won the election outright. The “solution” was an agreement that maintained the status quo.

Iraq has long been divided along ethnic and religious lines. Al-Maliki promised the world that he would build a cabinet inclusive of these factions and that these factions would have significant posts. That promise was hollow.

Although al-Malki himself is a Shiite, his largely Sunni coalition was viewed with suspicion by many in Iraq’s political scene who still harbor deep resentment over the Sunni-dominant government that ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein and worry about Sunnis returning to power. That left al-Maliki to cobble together support from fellow Shiite political parties and Kurds to propel him to a second term.

We have the opportunity to improve our organizations by ensuring that we not only have divergent views at the table, but that those voices are heard. Iraq teaches us that the mere presence of support as a means to an end — in this case winning power — cannot and will not result is stability.