Character is Crumbling in Our #Leadership

Character is Crumbling in Our #Leadership
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In military and civilian academic institutions around the world, above and beyond their core curriculum, character is taught and inspired.  In each of the military academies in the United States, as well as college Reserve Officers’ Training Corps programs, the purpose and responsibility is to produce leaders of character.  To accomplish this, they work to incorporate the values of integrity, respect, responsibility, compassion, and gratitude into the daily life of cadets and midshipmen who aspire to become tomorrow’s leaders. 

United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD (Logan, Wikicommons)

The U.S. Naval Academy’s mission, for example, is to develop midshipmen morally, mentally, and physically and to imbue them with the highest ideals of duty, honor, and loyalty.  They aim to provide graduates who are dedicated to a career of naval service and have potential for future development in mind and character to assume the highest responsibilities of command, citizenship and government.[1] The Naval Academy has a deep and abiding commitment to the moral development of its midshipmen and to instilling the naval service core values of honor, courage, and commitment.[2]


United States Military Academy in West Point, NY (USMA Public Affairs)

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point has a  character development strategy to promote living honorably and building trust.  West Point believes their approach not only develops character, but modifies behavior over the course of the 47-month cadet experience.  Ultimately, the desire is for cadets and rotating faculty members to depart West Point with the character, competence, and commitment to build and lead resilient teams that thrive in complex security environments. Most importantly, everyone commits to living honorably and building trust, on and off duty.[3]


United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO (U.S. Air Force Photo)

The U.S. Air Force Academy has the Center for Character and Leadership development, where they advance the understanding, practice, and integration of character and leadership development as a catalyst for achieving the academy’s highest purpose—developing leaders of character–while also preparing the cadets for service to the nation in the profession of arms.[4]  I think the Air Force Academy has it absolutely correct when they say there has never been a more critical time to increase understanding of how moral and ethical dimensions interact with the complexities of leadership–not only in the military context, but across many fields of human endeavor.


Those who possess leadership characteristics seek to discover the truth, decide what is right, and demonstrate the courage to act accordingly—always.[6]  Officers in the military are to epitomize humility, self-effacement, and selfless service.  So, at the basic and academic level, before the bars are pinned on a newly commissioned officer, candidates are taught the importance of equality, dignity, and respect.[7]

Yet despite these foundations, it seems that the façade of character in today’s military is crumbling.  

In 2015, just in the U.S. Navy alone, there were twenty commanding officers, four executive officers, and eight senior enlisted firings.  And the list has already started for 2016.  In one 2016 case, the commanding officer of the Norfolk-based USS Anzio propositioned a subordinate for sex in exchange for career advancement during a “wetting down” party at a nearby bar.[8]  There was heavy drinking and inappropriate fraternization that evening, followed the next day by an encounter in the commanding officer’s cabin.

How can it be that the moral compass for these leaders has broken?  Why have they ventured so far off course that they ruin their careers, tarnish the branch of service to which they belong, and betray those who have, up to that point, trusted them with precious people, equipment, and resources?  Has leading by example become so difficult in today’s complex military environment that doing the right thing has become challenging?

In an article on the Military Times website, Andrew Tilghman reported that the Pentagon’s force-wide look at misconduct among senior military officers, and the efforts to prevent it, found the Navy and Air Force lag behind in professionalism, while the Army and the Marine Corps have a very mature profession of arms.  Rear Admiral Margaret Klein, the Secretary of Defense’s senior advisor for military professionalism, attributes the success of the Army and Marine Corps to sending junior officers into leadership positions. Their professional identity is learned early in their careers in situations relying on the importance of trust, humility, integrity, and empathy.

Not only are officers and non-commissioned officer’s responsible for upholding their own ethical behavior, they are responsible for instilling morals in their subordinates.  But it seems the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ mentality is a growing epidemic throughout the ranks.  Maybe it’s time for the Pentagon to conduct an ethics stand down to reach every service member from four-star rank down to the recruit in basic training, as the Marine Corps did a few years ago, to emphasize code of conduct and core values.  But, will that really reduce or eliminate the problem?

Retired Army colonel, David S. Maxwell, Associate Director for Security Studies at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, in an article about the growing concern over top military officers’ ethics, was quoted as saying, “Faced with stress, and a very complex combat environment, people make mistakes.”  Andrew Bacevich, professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University, in an article asking if recent ethics and sex scandals undermine integrity of the officer corps, said, “The truth is just because people are wearing stars, doesn’t mean they are immune from human frailties.”  Are these legitimate reasons for these ethical lapses in judgment, or merely excuses?

Character is the foundation upon which all leadership traits are built.  Moral and ethical behavior is where leadership becomes the bedrock of who we are as individuals and as leaders.  Its strength comes from the fortitude to always do our best and to always do what is right, no matter what may lure us away from making the right decision.  The four cornerstones of this foundation are the values of integrity, respect, responsibility and professionalism.  Or, to use a different and more common metaphor, these become the four points on the moral compass.  They are the core values of a leader that lead to uprightness and success.

No matter what our challenges happen to be, either driven by stress or human urges, we must reach deep within ourselves to overcome the temptation to make poor decisions, whether we are in uniform downrange, or engaged in the activities of daily life with our family or friends.  Our country, society, superiors, peers, subordinates, family, and friends are relying on our steady and consistent moral courage to translate into professional decorum and behavior; always. 

Lieutenant General John A. Lejeune: "Leadership is the sum of those qualities of intellect, human understanding, and moral character that enables a person to inspire and control a group of people successfully." (Public Domain)

Many respected military leaders of the past espoused the vitally important qualities of a leader. Lieutenant General John A. Lejeune, the 13th Commandant of the Marine Corps said, “Leadership is the sum of those qualities of intellect, human understanding, and moral character that enables a person to inspire and control a group of people successfully.”  Among General Douglas MacArthur’s 17 Principles of Leadership, which essentially acts as a leader’s self-assessment questionnaire, there is this question: “Am I a constant example to my subordinates in character, dress, deportment, and courtesy?”[9]

An excerpt from the West Point Cadet Prayer reads, “Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half-truth when the whole truth can be won.  Endow us with the courage that is born of loyalty to all that is noble and worthy, that scorns to compromise with vice and injustice and knows no fear when truth and right are in jeopardy.”[10]

The trailhead to success was clearly identified early in our lives and careers.  Ultimately, it became our responsibility to continue to travel along a wholesome path.  But, at some point in our lives, we find ourselves at the intersection of human-nature and temptation, faced with the challenge to make the right decision.  When this happens to you, which way will you go?  Will your moral compass point you in the right direction?  Is the foundation of your character strong enough to stand firm?  Or, will your character crumble to the ground?  What will your leadership legacy be?  Lessons learned through life’s experiences, as well as the awareness and attentiveness to your surroundings, should always provide you the sense of direction necessary to make the right decision.  You must have courage, faith and confidence that your moral compass will point you in the right direction; the path toward the intersection of character and integrity.  If your ultimate destination is success and victory, follow your moral compass.[11]

Dale R. Wilson is a veteran of the United States Navy, serving from 1986 to 1994.  He hosts theCommand Performance Leadership blog, which discusses the synergies between military and corporate leadership competencies, and ties experience and knowledge from military leadership to its application in a corporate environment.  He is also a proud member of the Military Writers Guild.


[1]1 U.S. Naval Academy. Mission of USNA. Web. Accessed 13 Feb 2016.

[2] U.S. Naval Academy. Character Development. Web. Accessed 13 Feb. 2016.

[3] The William E. Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic. "Character Development Strategy - Live Honorably and Build Trust." Letter by Robert L. Caslen, Jr., Lieutenant General, U.S. Army, Superintendent, United States Military Academy: Page 3. Dec. 2014. Web. Accessed 13 Feb. 2016. documents/west point's character development strategy(digital-2-4-15).pdf.

[4] "Center for Character & Leadership Development Homepage." Center for Character & Leadership Development Homepage. U.S. Air Force Academy. Web. Accessed 13 Feb. 2016.

[5] U.S. Air Force Academy, Journal of Character & Leadership Integration (JCLI). Center for Character Development—Publications Archive. Web. Accessed 13 Feb. 2016.

[6] "Building Capacity to Lead - The West Point System for Leader Development." Officership & Perspective: Our Targets for Leader Development | Leader of Character: Page 18. United States Military Academy. Web. Accessed 13 Feb. 2016. the capacity to lead.pdf.

[7] Wilson, Dale R. "Schofield's Definition of Discipline." Command Performance Leadership. Command Performance Leadership, 23 Feb. 2012. Web. Accessed 13 Feb. 2016.

[8] A ‘Wetting Down’ is a ceremony or event held congratulating a newly promoted officer. More information can be found here:  "Social Customs & Traditions of the Sea Services." Functions & Traditions - Wetting-Down Parties: page 14. Naval Services FamilyLine. Web. Accessed 14 Feb. 2016.

[9] Donnithorne, Larry. The West Point Way of Leadership: From Learning Principled Leadership to Practicing it. New York: Currency Doubleday, 1993. pp. 178-179. Print.

[10] Cadet Prayer. Office of Chaplains. Web. Accessed 13 Feb. 2016. Prayer.aspx.

[11] Wilson, Dale R. "Pithy Points to Ponder (A Leader's Moral Compass)." Command Performance Leadership. 14 Nov. 2012. Web. Accessed 14 Feb. 2016. Edited and adapted for this publication.

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