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What We Mean By Culture

By Lieutenant-General M.A.J. Carignan, CMM, MSM, CD - May 26, 2023

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Lieutenant-General M.A.J. Carignan, CMM, MSM, CD

Lieutenant-General M.A.J. Carignan, CMM, MSM, CD

Chief Professional Conduct and Culture

Reading various opinion pieces in the National Post over the past several months, it has become clear to me that there is a lot of confusion about what culture evolution really is at the Department of National Defence (DND) and the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). Some people seem to understand it intuitively, while others have offered different opinions. We hear them.

Change can be a scary thing, and it certainly takes courage to implement. Start talking about changing culture, and people are prone to imagine all kinds of things. So, what is this culture change, and why are we doing it?

We are not unique in this endeavour. In late March, I met with 25 of NATO’s 31 member-country military representatives who share the same challenges and were keen to learn what we are doing. Moreover, a week earlier Norway had announced that they would be following our lead.

Probably the most common misconception is that culture change comes at the cost of operational effectiveness. On this 106th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, we would do well to remember the courage it took to change the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s culture so fundamentally before that decisive moment.

Everything we do in the Defence Team is in support of operational effectiveness, and culture is no exception. Another disquieting misconception is some people think we are putting sailors, soldiers, aviators, and special operators through “social justice conditioning” in a culture change that “look more like a Marxist cultural revolution.” Few things could be further from the truth.

To be clear, the Defence Team needs to reflect the society that we serve and protect. We need to reflect all of Canadian society because we all have a stake in our family’s safety, our homeland’s security, and in protecting our democratic, tolerant, and compassionate way of life. Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine is a clash of cultures: dictatorships trying to overcome democracies. There may be more of this to come.

Freedom is not free. Freedom is earned every day. Our defence is a whole-of-society effort. If anyone is left behind, we all suffer for it. How? We suffer from unforced errors in anticipating, learning, and adapting. These blind spots are cultural failures that undermine operational effectiveness.

Looking to our past, we know that the soldiers deployed to Gallipoli in February 1915 followed a long-established battle plan, but it failed. One senior officer who survived Gallipoli, and other campaigns, Julian Byng, applied what he learned during the First World War and listened to people of diverse backgrounds so that a little over two years later this command staff led Canada to a strategic and historic victory at Vimy Ridge.

Byng, 54, was demanding of – yet popular with – his troops, who called themselves Byng Boys. How did he do this? From the top down, he relied on the insights of arguably one of Canada’s greatest general – Major-General (in 1917) Arthur Currie, 41, a former teacher, insurance broker, and land developer – and the ingenuity of allies who masterminded the rolling barrage – to motivate the 100,000 members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

From the bottom up, he trusted the troops – a first for Canada’s military – by ensuring everyone down to the rank of Private was familiar with the battle plan, had copies of trench maps (hitherto exclusively in the hands of senior officers) so they could orient themselves if their commander was killed and unlike their predecessors they practiced the technical and tactical innovations they had devised over months of meticulous planning. The troops were included in planning the mission and understood their role in it.

Like in the First World War, the CAF is merging two generations into the Defence Team. Among ourselves, we call these the Industrial Age and the Information Age generations. We also call leadership that rallies all the troops around the mission an expression of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

This diversity of thought, experience, and background combined with treating people in a fair, respectful, and equitable way fosters the essential sense of belonging required to build strong teams. Any unit commander then, and now, will tell you this enhances operational effectiveness.

Today’s culture transformation rests on four pillars: teamwork, identity, leadership, and service.

Operationally effective teams now as then trust each other, we express mutual respect because we’re included in the process and we know to balance individual expression with the need to work together.

We know that, like the soldiers at Vimy Ridge, we are true warriors because we behave honourably in all situations and maintain a healthy body and mind, are adaptable, resourceful, mission oriented, and express our emotions appropriately.

Great leaders like Generals Byng and Currie valued the opinions and contributions of others, and like them we are applying emotional intelligence in our decision-making, balancing ego with humility, and creating conditions where members of the team are able to succeed.

And above all, we continue to abide by the principles of unlimited liability and service before self, and now emphasize that the best service comes from being our best self in all situations. Competence without integrity actually jeopardizes operational effectiveness.

The brave soldiers at Vimy Ridge ushered Canada into fully mature statehood by helping secure the democratic world’s freedom. We honour them by modelling their culture of belonging in the 21st century.

Vimy Ridge
Four people walking up the steps at The Canadian National Vimy Memorial.
Image of College Entrance used for a section break.

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