Ethnic Minority Leadership

Ethnic Minority and Women Leadership: My EXPERIENCE as a White Male Soldier

A Master Sergeant makes the case for leadership diversity by reflecting upon his more than 26 years of military service and leadership and describing his discovery of both the benefits of White male privilege and the unique competencies, contributions and burdens of ethnic minority leadership.

By Master Sergeant Greg Jenkins

Women and ethnic minority leaders are some of the best leadership resources we have. In our continually shrinking and complex world we need leaders who know how to lead and maneuver through intricate group dynamics as well as communicate across different cultures.

In my 26 plus years of active Army service I have had many high-quality leaders, regardless of their race, color, gender, religious preference or national origin. These women and ethnic minority leaders not only led us to our collective successes of mission accomplishment, but they also did so while having to endure differing levels of discrimination and exclusion that I was neither aware of nor had to contend with. It was not until much later in my life and career that I began to realize just what those caring and gifted men and women had to go through while leading us; and continue to endure in some cases.

I did not know what white male privilege was, or that I was enjoying such a privilege, until 2005 when I experienced equal opportunity training and education at the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute (DEOMI) located at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida. What I learned there forced me to reflect over my career and life, and to think about the women and ethnic minority leaders that I had while serving. The training I experienced forced me to take a hard look at myself as a leader too. Until that awakening, I had thought of myself as a good leader who knew and understood his Soldiers well. What I came to realize was that I had much to learn about myself and the people around me.

These leaders that I speak of now did, and still do, provide something great for the Army and society at large. They provided outstanding examples of intelligence, courage, humility, strength and caring; even when those same and other courtesies and respect were not always returned to them in kind. Historically, women and ethnic minority leaders have always played a large role in our nation becoming more unified and effective in what we do, and more importantly, who we are as a country. Women and ethnic minorities provide our military and nation with a largely untapped resource of differing perspectives that many in our society have now begun to fully realize.

In many cases the women and ethnic minority leaders I have known, worked harder, longer and provided better leadership than some others. I learned more about sacrifice and dedication from these leaders because I had to watch them work even more diligently to gain the same level of acceptance and inclusion that other leaders almost automatically obtained by default.

Like Sergeant Reginald White, the best squad leader I ever had. He was an African American male who taught me how to properly care for my own Soldiers and who also taught me maybe my greatest lesson, that the hardest thing in life that I will ever have to do will be to forgive others. Then there is Captain Diane Cummins, an African American female who often put up with insensitive and unsolicited comments about her ability to lead, although she performed better than any other company commander I had. Or there's Chief Petty Officer Keith Perkins, an African American male, who explained to me how when he had to drive across our own country, did not feel safe unless he had a weapon to protect him and his family. Then there's Captain Angela Berg, a white female engineer officer, who was referred to as not being a "real" engineer officer by our battalion commander, even though she was successfully running the largest engineer company in the battalion. There is also Major General Randy Castro, a Hispanic male, who alone amongst his commanders and staff was the only leader concerned with the challenges of off-post housing for all Soldiers. Another leader was Command Sergeant Major (retired) Bob Keehu, an Asian male, who shared with our class how he would have to explain to complete strangers why he had a little white girl by the hand as he would walk through airports and other establishments, even though the little girl was his own granddaughter. Finally, Command Sergeant Major Maria Martinez, a Hispanic female and American citizen with 30 years of Army service, who still to this day gets asked to provide proof of her U.S. citizenship.

Despite the aforementioned obstacles, I never witnessed these leaders quit, complain or take revenge. Instead, they simply rose above the demeaning and belittling behavior and led us to successful mission accomplishment. In short, they endured and provided outstanding examples of grace and perseverance.

In this continually changing and dynamic world we need people who know how to lead and maneuver through intricate group dynamics. These leaders must also have the competencies to communicate across different cultures providing dignity and respect while accomplishing the mission. Women and ethnic minorities leaders are some of the best suited for these and other challenges, as they've been serving and leading with distinction in challenging environments around the world for many years.