A Principle Within:

Ethical Military Leadership

by Captain R.J. Phillips, CHC, USN

A paper prepared for presentation to the Joint Services Conference on Professional Ethics XVII Washington, D.C. January 25-26, 1996

 (The views presented herein are entirely those of the author, and do not repres ent the official position of the JSCOPE Conference, United States Navy or the Department of Defense.)

Character is what you are in the dark.
...D.L. Moody

 J. Frank Norris was a flamboyant and successful Baptist preacher in Fort Worth, Texas, during the raucous 1930s. He built a huge congregation with his combination of fiery sermons, leadership skills and public verbal brawls with local politicians and religious opponents. One of his most famous sermons, written to guarantee a packed house and publicized well in advance, was entitled, The Ten Worst Devils in Fort Worth, Names Given. He did indeed pack the house. True to his word, he named names.

 A friend of one of those Norris named later dropped by the preachers study to protest. An argument ensued and ended abruptly when Norris pulled a six-shooter from his desk and sent the objector to his eternal reward. Although the subsequent investigation found that the deceased was unarmed, Norris was acquitted of murder charges on the grounds of self-defense. If nothing else, this incident shows that the notion of perception is reality when assessing threats of harassment or harm did not only originate with frenzied feminists but also with feisty fundamentalists.

 In preparing this paper, I briefly toyed with the idea of a title along the lines of, The Ten Biggest Devils in the Sea Services, Names Given. After all, I have served for over twenty years in the Navy, with duties also among the minions of the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard. I have served with black shoe and brown shoe. I have memories of Focsle Follies and assorted other very-off-Broadway productions. I have had professional acquaintance with some of the big names before they were big names and have had occasion to view their actions and antics close at hand. Oh yes, I could say a lot.

 Then I recalled the aftermath of the Norris sermon. Since I am a peace-loving Methodist from Illinois and not a pistol-packing Baptist from Texas, I have decided on a kinder, gentler approach to the subject.

 In my religious tradition there is a saying. If you can't sing it, you dont have to believe it. What that means is that every religious doctrine that is truly important can be expressed in song and hymn. If it can't be set to music, that means it probably is no big deal. It is therefore curious to scan the contemporary production of religious music to see what is the object of song...and what isn't.

 There is lots of music about praise, worship, goodness and grace, and I am all for those things. What intrigues me is that the modern stuff virtually never mentions right living, holy living in the traditional religious sense, principled living to more modern ears. In short, there is a lot of material on the street about feeling good but next to nothing about doing good.

 At this point you may be rolling your eyes toward the ceiling, perhaps to ensure the ceiling is still there, asking what a recitation about church music has to do with profound issues of ethical military leadership. You deserve a punchline and here it is: Ethical military leadership arises from the blend of principled living by individual leaders and clear ethical perspectives nurtured and rewarded by the institution in which the leaders serve. Show me a military leader, of whatever rank, who has principles within and place that leader within a system that cultivates clear and positive ethical norms and I contend the result will be quality moral leadership such as the military longs and needs to see.

 On the other hand, show me a person in a position of leadership who lacks clear principles or show me a system that erratically rewards and perhaps punishes the consistent application of ethical norms by its leaders, and I will show you a moral crash waiting to happen.

 Developing viable principles within and making them part of the very fabric of an institution such as the military are no easy tasks. If religious traditions that ostensibly are steeped in morality stutter when trying to sing contemporary hymns about the subject of right living, how much more difficult for a sea-going institution, one of whose best-known songs struggles with the moral question, "What shall we do with the drunken sailor, earl-lie in the mornin'?"

 Let me first unpack these two dimensions of individual and institutional ethics with some general comments. Where do people find the sources for developing their principles within? One source is family. Whether the family of origin is Ozzie and Harriet or the Simpsons, everyone has some sort of family. The values played out by the family provide the first formative data base for the development of the inward principles by which a person chooses to live.

 From the family of origin one learns whether or not the following statements are true: It is not enough that I succeed. Others must fail. Forgive your enemies but never forget their names. Nice guys finish last. It is possible to get all A's and flunk life. Words such as honor, duty and courage either are fleshed out or flushed away, depending on how those words are defined and acted out within the family.

 A second source in developing principles within is institutional. The institution may be a school, church, social organizations such as scouts or whatever. The institution may be a military service academy, boot camp, the Masonic Lodge or a political party. We imbibe the ethical standards of an institution and make them our own, or at least use them as a guideline to tell us how well or how poorly we are doing as moral creatures.

 Sometimes an institution fills a moral vacuum left by a dysfunctional family. A Coast Guard Academy cadet came to me several years ago, deeply concerned about the outcome of an honor offense to which he admitted guilt. During most of his senior year of high school, he had lived with friends or in the street, since his impoverished parents had long since split from him and from one another, whereabouts unknown. Some habits the cadet developed in order to survive in the street did not fit with the Academy ethos. He had been at the institution long enough to see that he dearly wished to remain, but not yet long enough to shed the family values imparted to him by his morally derelict parents.

 When the institutions leaders were appraised of the larger context for this cadets actions, they chose to hammer him for the honor violation...and retain him, much to the indignation of numerous uninformed peers. The cadet had no further trouble, graduated high in his class and his serving his country successfully today as an officer. Most important, he learned from his Academy family two lessons that his family of origin never taught him, that honor matters and that mercy can be the companion of honor.

 A third source in developing ethical principles is friends. This is the proverbial peer pressure. Someone once remarked, If twenty million Frenchmen say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing. Yea, sure. What I have seen far more often is a variation of that nobly defiant statement. If twenty million Frenchmen say a foolish thing, maybe they are onto something. As Winston Smith learned in Orwell's novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, when the right pressure is applied from institutions and peers, two plus two really can seem to equal five.

 During my second year as an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois, I was an unwitting part of what has become an influential experiment relating to the effects of peer pressure on making decisions. In an academic version of the sting, I was asked by a friend to join him as a volunteer in a simple perception test he and other had to take for their basic psychology class. When I arrived in the classroom that evening, I found eight chairs placed in a row. I plopped into one of the chairs to await developments.

 Other students, none of whom I knew, began to filter into the room. With all the chairs taken except the last one in the row, the final student arrived. She blurted out warm recognition of the person who sat to my left and asked if she could have my seat in order to talk with her friend. I agreed, and wound up in the last seat by default. Later I learned why.

 The instructor arrived, affably thanked us for volunteering and explained this simple perception test. He would place a series of white cardboard sheets before us. Each sheet had two lines drawn on it. Our job was to say whether or not the lines were the same length or different lengths. Same or different was all we were required to say, speaking one after another. Simple experiment, right?

 Wrong. The first two or three sheets had lines that obviously were of the same or different lengths. Beginning with the student seated at the far end of the line, each in turn gave similar replies to the question of same or different. By the time they got to me, it was a piece of cake.

 Then things started to go weird. The instructor showed us a sheet in which the lines were of different lengths, not blatantly different but different. The person in the first seat said, "Same". So did the next person an d the next person and so on until they came to me. I looked carefully, squinting to perceive what everyone else in the line clearly saw. I didn't see it, so replied hesitantly, Different.

 The final few minutes became a roller coaster, in which I was out of whack with the perceptions of the other students about half the time. I paused the group to ask for a repeat of the instructions. After all, if they all saw things differently from me, I must be missing something. By the end of the experiment, as the group ticked off their chant of same...same...same to two lines that obviously looked different to me, I was reduced to a shrug and a smirk. But I did say different.

 At the end of the session, I was cut in on the scam. Students and instructor were scripted, except for me, to respond in a variety of ways designed to pressure me, the stooge in the last chair, to go along with the perceptions of the others. It turned out that a significant number of suckers who sat in the last chair managed to change at least some of their answers to conform to the group response of the unindicted co-conspirators. This study tends to confirm both the power of peer pressure and David Fischers comment that the work of psychology is diminished by its dependency upon the behavior of animals and undergraduates.

 Peer pressure is not limited to children on a playground. Peer values remain a life-long blessing and curse for those who seek to cultivate principles within. Everybodys doing it assumes an almost mystic status to affirm or excuse ethically dubious behaviors, ranging from cheating on taxes through underage drinking. As I prepared to accompany one of my petty officers to captains mast some time ago for knowing of underage drinking by a roommate and not taking steps to stop it, this very fine petty officer said to me in genuine bewilderment, But sir, everybody's doing it.

 To assist in coming to terms with the tensions between individual and institutional dynamics in ethical leadership, I offer the following observations. First, everyone has principles within. The individual may or may not be aware of them, may or may not be able to express them, but they are there. The principles that undergird the military officer may or may not be worthy of the allegiance they receive, but they are there.

 A while back I did some training for some junior officers on the subject of Dealing with Dirtbags. Given the size of the wardroom on USS JOHN C. STENNIS, there are plenty of wonderfully eager and remarkably clueless junior officers running around. A number of them are particularly clueless when it comes to dealing with the unmotivated, the indifferent, the hostile and the defiant among the enlisted in their divisions. Such was not the kingdom of college, where such feisty types either...just go away or else take a job in the recruiting or alumni affairs office.

 As part of this training I encouraged the officers to re-frame certain predictable issues and people through a philosophical lens. Imagine Joe or Jane Sailor sits before you. He or she has received the label of Dirtbag, for antics too numerous and outrageous to recount. Can you, as a junior officer, turn this person around or do you simply shake this bag of dirt back into society via an other-than-honorable discharge?

 Now assume that the person who sits before you is operating on the philosophical assumption that he or she has a right to happiness. No, they cannot articulate a personal theory of hedonism in any coherent manner but their world view tells them that among the divine entitlements tendered to them by mellow Nature is the right to feel pleased. This is their essential operating standard. All issues of moral right and wrong, professional good and bad, excellence and shoddiness in performance, are refracted through the lens of this right. Threats and terrors from superiors may compel a temporary shift in behavior for this Sailor, but unless someone gets a handle on their underlying ethical system and the notion of their right to happiness, the problems will resume and deepen.

 During the four years of my service as a chaplain at the Coast Guard Academy, cadets had to face a new academic challenge in the requirement to take a basic course in Morals and Ethics. The course was meant to help equip the future officer with the tools necessary to critique hedonism, utilitarianism and a dozen other isms that motivate or unmotivate men and women in the military. Armed with this knowledge and insight, the officer would be in a better position to exert genuine leadership that takes account of underlying moral and ethical issues. In dealing with dirtbags, this would include the realization that even labeling a subordinate as a dirtbag is ethically questionable as well as self-defeating if the purpose of leadership is to reclaim the person for a productive conclusion to his or her enlistment.

 Given the wisdom of this approach, one would think a required course in Morals and Ethics would have been greeted with open arms by students eager to find sound grounding to ethical leadership. Think again. In constructing the course the planners anticipated a routine type of complaint. The practical examples arising in class might not be real to military life or to life as most people on planet Earth experience it. There is regrettable truth to the fear that a good many academic philosophy and ethics courses are occasions where insipid lectures marry up with incomprehensible readings to give birth to staggering irrelevance. Steps were taken and continue to be taken to avoid the specter of spending a week studying the immorality of cruelty to carrots and other esoteric ethical topics.

 Others, however, complained about all the theory. Learning the conceptual basis for ethical behavior struck a lot of Academy cadets as dumb. They preferred to cut to the chase, summarizing the essence of moral behaviors along the lines of Ernest Hemmingway's snit that, "Right is what I feel good after and wrong is what I feel bad after." To this way of thinking, knowing the what is everything. Knowing the why is beside the point.

 Their objection to learning the theory is similar to the argument that one need not know the dreary details of how to add, subtract, multiply and divide in order to keep a checkbook. Technically, that is a true statement. One need not know any of those fine details in order to keep a checkbook. However, if one wishes to keep a balanced checkbook, such expertise is highly desirable. Those untroubled by thoughts of bankruptcy are free to engage in any sort of creative banking practices they wish. When leaders shrug off serious thought in order to cut to the chase, more often than not they wind up with some version of Mae Wests solution to moral ambiguity, when she said, "When confronted with a choice between two evils, choose the one you've never experienced."

 Someone asks an officer to shave a few dollars from an Morale Fund audit for a good cause. Someone asks an officer to hold up submission of a CASREP that reports non-functioning equipment to higher, displeased authority. Someone asks an officer to engage in creative log entries of a sort not technically wrong nor thoroughly right. Someone asks an officer to look the other way when he says to a female subordinate in their hearing, I'd like to f--- you, Miss X. A flag officer hears an answer he dislikes during a staff meeting and hurls his clipboard across the room at that officer, with obvious intent to strike him.

 Having personal knowledge of each of these situations as they happened in the military, I find them to be morally relevant to the matter at hand. In these settings it is vital for the officer who is pressured to act in a certain way to have principles within and to know clearly what his or her principles are and to be able to critique the ethical frame of reference that others are asking the officer to adopt for their sake.

 Second, peer pressure can cut both ways. Peers can hold an officer to the highest standards or lure that officer into the gutter. Peers can coax one to honesty or derail one from dishonesty. Peers can keep a friend morally sane and sober or merrily invite a friend to lose sanity and sobriety along with the rest of the bubbas thanks to some alpha strike at a local pub.

 Not long ago, a junior officer, a military academy graduate not numbered among the religious fanatics I have known, sat in my living room with head shaking while recounting life on the ship. This officer recalled a recent wardroom foray to a bar in another port, in which the officers, gentlemen and gentlewomen who lead the vessel, took turns in the sling, lying under a contraption that poured beer down their gullets until nearly every commissioned officer had lost bearings, moorings and mental radars. This officer's failure to participate invited scorn from wardroom peers. Behavior personally unthinkable to this officer became difficult to resist thanks to the pressure to conform.

 In contrast, the best grade my oldest daughter received during her freshman year of high school was a C in a science course. The grade was not her highest. Actually, it was her lowest grade, and her best. She returned from the final exam exasperated. The grades for the test would be curved. Cheating by numerous classmates was obvious and epidemic in nature during the exam. The teacher, a solid product of tenured indifference toward the subject and personal disdain toward the students, shrugged off protestations of cheating made by my daughter and a few other hearty souls. Thus, she flunked the final and dropped to a C for the year in the subject.

 The possibility that she might cheat in order to stay even with her classmates did not enter her mind. That cheating was a total non-starter with her was not simply the product of her superior moral upbringing, with two clergy for her parents. The main personal factor for her honesty in that situation was the peer example she saw in cadets during the four years she spent as a rug rat at the Coast Guard Academy.

 She saw many cadets struggle valiantly with tough classes, sometimes succeeding and sometimes not succeeding in efforts to pass a course. What she never saw was an acceptance of cheating as a way to make the grade, even when a slight bending of the rules might have meant the difference between pass and fail. She had been around people who believe that no exam in a given subject is worth passing if the price is failing the exam in honesty that inherently comes with it. Peer pressures does not have to be bad news.

 Third, leaders really do set the ethical tone for institutions. One summer, several Coast Guard cadets assigned to a certain cutter engaged in improper actions with some members of the crew. At summer's end most of those who engaged in this behavior and some who did not came to see me about what had happened.

 When I asked them where they felt the chain-of-command was during the unfolding of events, more than one cadet remarked that the commanding officer repeatedly said, "I don't want to hear about people doing this-or-that," which the crew and wardroom interpreted as meaning, I don't care what you do so long as you keep it under the covers...so to speak.

 Since one of the officers on that vessel was openly engaged in a sexual relationship with one of the senior enlisteds, that was the logical inference. And no, this particular love boat never made the headlines and no punitive actions ever were taken against anyone for these behaviors, thanks more to perverse luck than integrity. Head-in-the-sand moral leadership usually is not so lucky.

 Leaders who exhibit consistent, fair, and clear ethical standards set the tenor for morale and professional success at their commands. Leaders who make clear the moral boundaries included within the concepts of honor, duty and commitment do a great service to their people. This is not to say that all those who serve at that command will become altar boys or choir girls. It is to say that they will serve with greater focus and with the stage set for performing their duties with integrity.

 Leaders who clear the air about what constitutes improper actions and what constitutes preferred actions prepare their people to achieve and to excel. A leader who has been entrusted with the deck and chooses to look the other way finds it is only a matter of time before someone collides with something.

 Fourth, ethical leadership see the splash and the ripples. Drop a pebble into a pond and two things happen. There is the splash of the pebble entering the water and the ripples that move from the point of entry to the boundaries of the pond. A good many junior officers and enlisteds in the military, and some who are not so young, routinely make professional and ethical decisions primarily on the basis of the splash and seem genuinely surprised when ripples appear.

 During a recent Navy stand-down on good order and discipline, I gave a talk to some of my shipmates In which I mentioned some moral situations in which the splash tends to blur the ripples. A night of unrestrained sexual frolic can culminate in Masters and Johnson's typical 15 second orgasm. That is the splash. One of the ripples not generally considered in the throes of passion is child support payments of $150 per month times 12 months times 18 years, which costs out the orgasm at $2400 a second, before inflation, a number that might not impress the Congressional Budget Office but may just get the attention of an E-2.

 As an aside, during my talk I mentioned the splash in sexual frolic and then asked, "What are the ripples?" Before I could reply, a Sailor in the front ofthe room stood up, pointed to the maternity uniform she was wearing and commented dryly, This.

 The willingness of leadership to factor in the ripples for personal and institutional decisions is one of the hallmarks of ethical maturity. This includes thinking through ones own decisions and providing ways and means for subordinates to reflect on the ripples of any number of professional moral choices. Leadership must model the nitty-gritty of unintended consequences to a generation of military men and women who have trouble spelling consequences, much less understanding them, whether unintended or not.

 Fifth, reward moral courage. A well-known American military leader led his troops heroically in combat during the Revolutionary War. He was wounded several times in action, rallied his forces in crisis during an unsuccessful attack on Quebec, spearheaded victory over the British at Saratoga and expended his personal wealth for the sake of the cause.

 When this leader felt that his services were not being properly recognized and rewarded, he turned bitter and eventually switched sides. His efforts to betray the American fortifications at West Point were discovered, leading him to flee to the redcoats for protection. Eventually he came to lead British forces against the Americans. The pinnacle of his success for England was the attack on the strategic port city of New London, Connecticut, which he burned to the ground. The traitor, of course, was Benedict Arnold.

 Clare Brandt, in a recent biography of Arnold entitled, The Man in the Mirror, comments that Arnold had astonishing physical valor but no moral courage; a rigid code of honor but without a shred of inner integrity; superior intelligence with no understanding. One lesson the American military constantly needs to re-learn from Benedict Arnold is that such contradictions are possible in a leader. We prize, rightly, physical valor but assume, wrongly, that moral courage is part of a package deal. We emphasize rightly the importance of honor but assume wrongly that inner integrity always will be its handmaiden. As the song says, It ain't necessarily so.

 The military offers a series of awards for courage in combat, in lifesaving, for taking dangerous physical risks above and beyond the call of duty. These we call heroes and that they are. What is the official government title for those who exhibit moral courage? Whistle-blowers. Whats wrong with this picture?

 The exercise of moral courage nearly always involves two factors. First, the officer is required to stand against his or her peers, to resist the lemmings in their march off the cliff, so to speak. Second, the officer is required to risk career or advancement. These, at least, are the perceptions of what makes moral courage so difficult. The soldier who jumps on a grenade to save a buddy will receive a medal for that action, or the next-of-kin will receive it. The soldier who jumps on a moral grenade to save a buddy from behaviors that can destroy the person or the career may be thanked or may be spanked. That person may be called a hero but then again he or she may be called anal-retentive, holier-than-thou, repressed, a squealer, uptight, a spoil sport or any number of other nourishing terms designed to enhance self-esteem for daring to do the right thing.

 How is the exercise of moral courage encouraged and rewarded in the military? Cash payments to whistle-blowers on hotlines cannot be the main source of affirmation for raising difficult questions in such a large institution. Turning one's elderly uncle into the Thought Police for improprieties is less an example of rewarding moral courage and more an example of an outtake from Nineteen Eighty-Four. Standing by officers and enlisted members who resolve to pursue ethically proper actions at the threat of rejection by shipmates is a positive institutional response.

 A junior officer learned that his supervisor was spending non-appropriated funds in questionable and possibly illegal ways. When the junior officer objected, the supervisor indicated that the junior's fitness reports would reflect the lack of loyalty to the Command. The situation was briefed to the Commanding General in such a way that the junior became the culprit, with evaluations written accordingly. That supervisor was selected for promotion and transferred to a prestigeous new assignment, where he fell on his sword and retired early for a fresh set of misadventures.

 A random I.G. at the base uncovered the misdeeds when a new supervisor risked his own promotion opportunities to bear the bad tidings to a new Commanding General. The new supervisor risked command displeasure to clear the air, despite well-meaning counsel from peers to keep quiet, play stupid and point the finger at the actual culprit should the I.G. uncover these unethical but not necessarily illegal actions. The supervisor found that the new Commanding General, upon reflection, was exceptionally pleased with the example of integrity and ensured that this supervisors evaluation reflected that praise. Commands would do well to emphasize that integrity is worth the risk that a commitment to do the right thing occasionally requires.

 Sixth, speak the truth in love. That turn of phrase is not original to the author of this paper. It comes from the Bible, from St. Paul, and expresses the juxtaposition of action and intention that is vital to ethical leadership at all levels.

 Credibility in ethical leadership derives from the conviction that the leader knows what he or she is doing and that the leader has the best interests of the people at heart. The woods are filled with competent screamers and the compassionately clueless. Screamers may speak the truth but paralyzes rather than energizes people to act. The compassionate clueless leader inspires warm fuzzies but cannot organize a three car caravan and certainly cannot inspire confidence in subordinates in combat or crisis situations.

 The purpose of honor, in military or civilian settings, is not to play an ongoing game of gotcha with peers or anyone else. Ethical leadership that loses sight of compassion or common sense ceases to be either ethical or leadership. To speak the truth in love is to hold these two dimensions in dynamic and constructive tension. Love without truth is squishy and sentimental, incapable of crisp decisions of any kind. Truth without love is an invitation for low morale, system-wide mistrust, and the ascendancy of thought-Nazis who are genuinely blind to the needs of others or to the hypocrisy within themselves.

 The officer who is committed to speak what is true, do what is right and cultivate what is honest will be an effective leader to the degree that he or she never loses sight of the people for whose sake leadership is offered. Take care of your people is a slogan as old as the nation, and no less valid today. Military leaders do not take care of their people either by covering up for th em or by hanging them out to dry. It is in the murky gray area between those t wo extremes that ethical leaders earn their pay...and their scars.

 The title of this paper has been, A Principle Within: Ethical Military Leadership. The title comes from an old Methodist hymn of Charles Wesley, I Want a Principle Within, and one of the few hymns in any modern book of hymns that deals with the importance of moral behavior to people of faith. The first verse goes like this, and no, I will not try to whistle the tune for public consumpt ion:

 I want a principle within, Of watchful, godly fear;
A sensibility to sin, A pain to feel it near.

 Regardless of your religious background or lack of one, the sentiment remains compelling. The officer committed to cultivating a principle within, who seeks to instill such principles into the fabric of the institution, is well on the way toward exercising the kind of ethical leadership that shall sustain the nation and the military for years to come.