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Teaching leadership in Afghanistan

Clemson Turregano
Clemson Turregano, a former U.S. Army officer, works with government and military agencies as a senior faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership.

Teaching leadership in Kabul is one of those things most people don't plan to do. Doing it well is even more of a stretch. But that's where I found myself in March of this year with 32 senior Afghan military and intelligence officers representing several different agencies within the Afghan government. Our charge: Work with the Allied training command in Afghanistan to help create a national army that could serve as a model for tolerance, diversity and unity.

That's an ambitious goal in a country wracked by tribalism, lack of formal education and, perhaps most of all, mindsets still wedded to clunky, top-down, Soviet-style bureaucracy.

Along with seven U.S. mentors to the Afghans, we met for three intense days at the Bala Hissar, an ancient fortress that has been the site of fierce fighting throughout the country's history.

The Afghan men in this program were already good leaders in many ways. Almost all of them had fought in the country's many conflicts over the past 30 years. They were intelligent, courageous and savvy. Battle-hardened and accustomed to making snap decisions without much input or feedback, they needed a fresh perspective on teamwork, decision-making and the difference between leadership and management.

Managers tell people what to do and expect them do it because they said so. Leaders cultivate real and lasting buy-in. Our research at the Center for Creative Leadership has shown it's possible to teach leadership across cultures, if you're sensitive to the culture in which you're teaching. And we knew that most of what Afghan soldiers have been taught about leadership over the years has had very little to do with them and the proud history of their country.

So we startled them on the first day of the program: We put them in small groups at round tables instead of the Soviet-era rows of desks to which they were accustomed. Then we started off with a simple question. What made General Ahmad Shah Massoud a good leader?

General Massoud, who played a key role in driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan in the 1980s, is a national hero on par with George Washington. These officers were, frankly, shocked to talk right away about Afghans, instead of leadership theories and case studies imported from abroad. They eagerly explored Massoud's leadership virtues and that set the tone for the next three days.

A series of interactive, team-building exercises played a key role in our work together. But we didn't assume that our approach with corporate clients in Asia, Europe and North America, which also often emphasizes team building, would succeed in precisely the same ways in Afghanistan.

In advance, we worked with a local mullah to ensure that all photos and materials used in the class were culturally appropriate. We started the class itself with an invocation. Each table included an American mentor and an interpreter. We translated difficult English terms into Dari -- the local dialect -- and altered the language we used to reflect the tribal, strife-torn society in which we were operating. The very word "leadership," in fact, is charged with negative connotations dating back to Soviet-era authoritarianism.

Consensus, a key behavior in team building, is not a common trait in Afghanistan. Creating it calls for overcoming significant boundaries, from ethnic rivalry to bureaucratic inertia. Using a straightforward activity, we helped the Afghan officers learn how to achieve consensus and grasp the powerful effect it can have on any project. This quick and easy activity opened the eyes of many of the Afghan officers and they began to think in terms of teams and collaboration instead of simple authority.

Collaboration and teamwork is the antidote to heavy-handed management, and it's as central to the success of the Afghan National Army as it is to Cisco Systems or the New York Yankees. So, mixing Western and Afghan best practices, we delved into the fundamentals of collaborative leadership in a systematic way, covering time management, influence, delegation and priority setting.

The reality is that the U.S. mentors, with their democratic, Western perspectives, had almost no common ground from the start with Afghans who have grown up in a culture of war and tribalism. But the exercises we did together built the respect, trust and loyalty need to create that commonality -- and resulted in a "shared space" of teamwork and common focus that helped the Afghans and their mentors weave everything together.

This leadership program, though small, proved highly effective, based on feedback we received from the Afghans and Americans who took part. It helped create bonds between Afghan agencies that sometimes clash. As the first combined leadership training that included many different elements of Afghanistan's Ministry of Defense, this program also built ties between Afghan officers and U.S. officials who realized they rarely tried to see from the perspective of their counterparts. Effective leadership very clearly can be taught to Afghan forces -- and Americans stand to learn a great deal themselves in the bargain.

By Clemson Turregano

 |  December 17, 2009; 12:43 PM ET |  Category:  Teaching leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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