Do the Right Thing
As we begin a new year, it is healthy to look at the year in review and determine how me might improve. I believe assessing our personal integrity is a great way to begin personal reflection. As leaders our personal integrity is the foundation from which we build trust with those we hope to lead and influence. Trust will be eroded by a leader who embodies “Do what I say, not what I do.” And it is always more difficult to rebuild trust after it has been broken. With this in mind, let me share some lessons in doing the right thing that I learned at West Point.
The idea of personal integrity was ingrained from the first moment I stepped off the bus and walked through the walls of gray at West Point.
Early on, cadets are introduced to the Cadet Honor Code. The code requires integrity in word and deed. A cadet found to be in violation of the code is brought before a cadet-run Honor Board. If merit is found, the violator’s case would be reviewed by the Superintendent and in some cases, the cadet would be separated from the Academy.
To aid our moral development, honor classes were held, often taught by Upperclassmen and sometimes by our Tactical Officers (Commissioned Officers assigned to the Department of Tactics). An ethically nebulous scenario was described, and we would be tasked with resolving the issue by applying honorable principles.
When the academic year began, we were expected to not cheat during exams. At the end of an exam, when the professor bellow, “Cease work!” At that moment, we were to immediately put down our pencils and comply. We also were taught to acknowledge any additional help we received on a paper or project. Acknowledgement statements would be added to the front of a paper citing the cadet who may have helped or assisted. The acknowledgement statement was so ingrained in a fellow West Point friend of mine that in graduate school she submitted an acknowledgement statement on her first paper. Her professor was perplexed, but also impressed with her personal integrity.
Having an Honor Code allowed cadets a good deal of freedom. We did not have locks on the doors of our rooms. We did not need to worry about anything being stolen from our rooms. We learned to trust one another, which was foundational to building camaraderie and esprit de corps.
Our training as Fourth Classmen demanded personal responsibility. Initially, we were held responsible for our uniforms, our rooms and our weapons. And as I have previously detailed, the Academy imposed Fourth Class duties such as delivering Upperclassmen’s mail and laundry. We also called minutes, standing at attention and shouting for our leaders’ benefit, the proper military dress for the upcoming parade or an event such as dinner formation.
At the time, I often felt those duties were unnecessary ways to possibly screw up and get in trouble. At times they felt demeaning, yet they were all part of the system to teach us personal responsibility with integrity. We learned to do the work assigned no matter how trivial and to complete it wholeheartedly. We were learning conscientiousness, dependability and a work ethic. In time we learned, as The Cadet Prayer states: “To do the harder right, instead of the easier wrong.” We could be counted on to do the right thing.
Somewhere between the learning and the doing, the message of “my word is my bond,” became a part of my being as a cadet.
Later, when serving in the Army, a fellow graduate, Lieutenant “Gray,” was confronted with an ethical dilemma when submitting a vehicle readiness report. The Operations Officer for the Battalion wanted him to change the report to reflect a higher readiness than reality. LT Gray was appalled that someone would suggest changing a report. He then stated that he was unwilling to change the report despite being unsure about how that decision would impact his Army career. At that moment, he decided to “do the right thing” even if it cost him.
The interesting thing was, once LT Gray stated clearly that he would not back down, the Operations Officer changed his tune and no longer pressed him to change the report. Although this episode was disheartening for this young Officer, LT Gray was satisfied that he had not compromised his ethics.
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, some in leadership will work against what may be best in a situation such as providing senior leadership inaccurate equipment readiness reports. LT Gray though chose to do the right thing.
As a leader in the Army, I believed in being candid and forthcoming with my soldiers. In return, I believe that I built trust with my subordinates. If I told a soldier I was going to look into a pay, leave or promotion issue, I meant what I said, and I acted upon it. However, I also learned that I could not blindly accept what was sometimes communicated to me. For example, a mechanic completed a job order and reported the repair complete, yet when the customer picked up the item and found there was still an issue, that soldier and his leadership had to explain themselves to me. The next time that mechanic claimed to have completed a job, I would verify that his leadership had signed off on the work signifying the repairs were fully complete. I had to learn to trust but verify. Doing the right thing then goes beyond modelling the behavior. It also implies holding others accountable. And sometimes doing the right thing relates to personal interactions that may be difficult, yet necessary.
Several years into my corporate career, I was employed by a large company as an internal consultant. I enjoyed my role immensely. However, I learned that several positions in my department would be eliminated. We were told to continue working hard in our jobs while leadership decided who would stay and who would go. Of course, the uncertainty of not knowing whether or not your job would remain created angst and some questionable activities in our department. Coworkers began bad-mouthing others in the hopes their roles would be preserved. Others maneuvered behind the scenes to insure they had a back-up job in another department. I decided to just continue to do my job as well as I knew how.
As part of my consulting role, I met with a Senior Vice President for a follow-up coaching session. We worked on his development for about 45 minutes. He gained a great deal of insight and wanted to continue the work, asking to schedule our next meeting. I told him I would like to do that but was uncertain about whether we could meet again as my position was in question. Being in another department, he was unaware of the downsizing. He leaned forward in his chair and commented, “And here you are giving me all this beneficial coaching while you do not even now if you will have a job next week!” He went on to say, “I am not sure I could do that if I was in your position.” In all honestly, I did not enjoy being in a form of purgatory during those weeks of uncertainty, yet as a West Pointer, I was determined to do the “harder right.”
But doing the harder right, while ethically satisfying, is not always easy and may come at a cost. There may be times when you feel pressured to shield the truth, doctor a report, or try to renege on a contract. In the end, we pay for those breeches. I believe it erodes our self-respect and inhibits our ability to build trusting relationships with others. Our influence is diminished and in time we may be found out. We need only look at the daily news to see the consequences for failing to do the right thing. That is why I encourage you to embrace integrity and candor. Both are needed when playing the long game of life.
Doing the right thing begins with holding ourselves to the highest levels of personal integrity. It requires us to choose “the harder right instead of the easier wrong.”
Being an effective leader requires us to build trust with others, our subordinates, our co-workers and our superiors. If we fail to be forthright, or when our actions don’t align with our words, it is never long before that interpersonal trust is eroded. In fact, it takes much more effort to build trust after it has deteriorated.
Therefore, I encourage you to choose the better path; a path of personal integrity and professional ethics in all you do. By doing so, you are fully accepting responsibility for every facet of your life. This includes becoming responsible for your attitude and actions in all endeavors. Only when our words align with our actions do others choose to follow our example.
Once you embrace total responsibility for your life, there are truly very few ethical dilemmas that you may need to confront.
However, when facing an ethical dilemma, let me suggest the following:
• Take a long view at the situation. If you choose to violate your personal morals, imagine how you will feel about that decision tomorrow, next week, in a year or in 10 years? Will you regret making that decision? If so, then choose the better alternative.
• Reflect on a time when you had violated your personal mores. What type of feelings did that decision create? How did that breech in ethics impact your self-confidence? If you are like most people, your self-concept may have wavered. Now, think through the current dilemma you are facing. Imagine that for this one decision, you decide to violate your conscience. Imagine how you will feel as a result. Next, imagine how you will need to explain your decision to those closest to you. Then ask, is it worth it? My guess is that you will conclude that it is not worth the fall-out or the emotional pain.
Instead, choose to do the right thing and live with little or no regret!
The Cadet Prayer
O God, our Father, Thou Searcher of Human hearts, help us to draw near to Thee in sincerity and truth. May our religion be filled with gladness and may our worship of Thee be natural.
Strengthen and increase our admiration for honest dealing and clean thinking and suffer not our hatred of hypocrisy and pretense ever to diminish. Encourage us in our endeavor to live above the common level of life. Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half-truth when the whole can be won.
Endow us with 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.
Guard us against flippancy and irreverence in the sacred things of life. Grant us new ties of friendship and new opportunities of service. Kindle our hearts in fellowship with those of a cheerful countenance and soften our hearts with sympathy for those who sorrow and suffer.
Help us to maintain the honor of the Corps untarnished and unsullied and to show forth in our lives the ideals of West Point in doing our duty to Thee and to our Country.
All of which we ask in the name of the Great Friend and Master of all.
-Colonel Clayton E. Wheat, Chaplain, USMA 1918-1926.