“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”
Understanding Leadership Ethics
At the end of the day, I’m a simple Nebraska boy at heart. I grew up in simpler times, raised by parents who grew up during the Great Depression in Iowa. They experienced World War II by participating in community rubber and tin drives, baking goodies for the soldiers and sailors, and always, through it all, working. My mom and dad didn’t have a choice regarding work ethic or community service, it was what America stood for in the early and mid-twentieth Century. As their children, my brother, sister, and I didn’t have a choice either.
My mom welcomed new neighbors and wrote regular letters to those who eventually moved away. She was a proud member of a group called “Welcome Wagon”. This group organized formal outreach to new arrivals, delivering food, drink, maps, guides to stores, any bit of information they thought might be useful. This included a typed list of names and phone numbers, babysitters in the neighborhood, which kids mowed yards or could run errands. Hard to believe it now, but this was a duty and an honor for these women and my mom loved doing it.
The men in my young world represented an informal mutual support system. Everybody knew how to fix everything. Their fathers had made sure of that. Tools, expertise, and muscle were lent to neighbors with a smile and always a little advice on how to do the task right. During holidays there were patriotic block parties and during tragedy everyone came together to support the afflicted neighbor. I watched this world and was directed, under pain of a long and imaginative list of punishments, to conform, to support, and to prepare for the day I would be a member in good standing in the community. As a young child these experiences shaped my sense of civic duty, honesty, and common work ethic.
As a teenager I was as rebellious as the next kid. I lived in America, land of the free and home of the brave, but if I screwed up (and in those days the list of potential infractions was long and detailed), my freedom was taken away. Being grounded was a favorite way to reinforce personal, family, and social rules of order. Behavior was on parade twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Every one of those oh so friendly neighbors were authorized to catch you doing something wrong and, in some cases, even allowed to mete out community punishment.
The struggle was psychological more than physical. Acting out was a fast way to get grounded, longer. Fighting the verdict was just plain stupid. In this America, every home could be converted to a gulag with a word. Yet, my spirit yearned to break free, and I learned my peers felt the same way. We spent countless hours discussing escape plans. The destinations were silly fantasies, and the outcomes were always rewarding. Our parents would feel the pain of departure and we’d be living it up in a big city doing something really cool for a lot of money. No more chores, no more rules, and no more punishment. One by one we goaded each other until one or more of us did the heroic deed, we ran away.
Running away I now see, was like a bad SEAL mission. Always poorly planned, executed without sufficient supplies, usually a bad map, and always a lack of cold weather gear. When I finally decide to express my free will and make the move. I was angry, and being angry, I left on impulse. I bolted form the back of the house carrying a dark green Easter basket filled with food stolen from the kitchen (that’s right in my day kids needed permission to take food out of the cupboard or refrigerator, rule ninety-seven, I think). I had about two dollars in loose change from finding old Coke bottles and returning then to the grocery store for ten cents each, all any eleven year old needed to start out in the world. This didn’t go well.
The front door to my house was locked when I returned that night. I rang the doorbell and waited. I’d determined that the worst punishment my dad might deliver was better than suffering the bitter cold for one more minute. He opened the door, looked down at me, and said, “Your dinner is cold, your mother is waiting for you in the kitchen.” That was it! My first experiment in free will, bucking the rules, and no punishment! I figured out much later in life that my dad may have known I’d suffered significantly already. Emotionally, and physically. As I sat in the kitchen eating my dinner and sipping the hot chocolate my mom insisted, I consume, I concluded that free will was dangerous. I knew instinctively that I must learn more, become wiser, if I was going to test its awesome power ever again.
My straightforward, values based upbringing served to guide me through most of the moral and ethical dilemmas I faced as a teenager. I did know right from wrong, and I understood the world would be a better place if everyone lived by the golden rule, always treat others as you would have them treat you. I was loyal in a social sort of way. Loyal to my family, loyal to my closest friends, and I guess loyal (or obedient) to my employers. I was one of those “good kids” who spent most of his time working one or two jobs (there’s that work ethic thing again) and maintaining the list of family chores and duties. I did take risks and ran around with a few kids who stretched my horizons, but I wasn’t a juvenile delinquent. The label high risk teens were given by parents at the time. I didn’t know it at the time, but my personal sense of duty and commitment at the end of high school was shallow, weak, and barely defined. That was about to change.
I joined the United States Navy through an early entry program. This meant that I swore an owe to defend the nation while I was still in high school, almost a year away from attending bootcamp. Once I did the deed, I didn’t see or hear a peep from the Navy, that is until a month before high school graduation. All at once I was riding the storm. Testing, physicals, background checks, a multitude of shots, and lots of forms. I was scheduled for my bootcamp date and before I knew it, I was getting my long, shoulder length hair shaved off, along with hundreds of other stunned young men. I was in the Navy now!
Why is this part of my life important? Well for one, I learned a strict form of discipline in the Navy, and I learned it right up front in bootcamp. The second reason was context. The discipline I learned that we all learned, was aimed at making the community of sailors better, not the individual. It was all about “we” and not “me”. This process is the same for all service bootcamps. As military professionals we are expected to be ready to die for our country, and even more intimately, be willing to die for each other. This is a selfless form of discipline and a concept many people who do not share a military upbringing, have a difficult time understanding. Sailors, soldiers, Marines, everyone in uniform are there to serve others and each other. To understand my brand of strategic thinking, planning, and operating it is important to understand the foundation my brand is built upon.
After Navy bootcamp I went to RADAR operator and air traffic control school. This was a crazy difficult challenge for me and all the other students. We first learned basic electronics so we could fix and maintain the equipment we’d be learning to operate. Then we learned how to track ships and planes, both friendly and hostile. Always being told we were the first line of defense for hundreds, maybe thousands of sailors who depended on our vigilance. One error, one lapse in concentration, could mean disaster. It was a lot for a seventeen year old to absorb. I buckled down, matured, and accepted the charge. No one would sneak up on the fleet when I was on watch. While RADAR school taught me mental discipline and reinforced the collective mission to serve and protect initially instilled in boot camp. My next challenge was discipline on a whole new level.
I reported to Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Training, known as BUD/S, at the ripe old age of eighteen. I was one hundred and twenty-five pounds soaking wet, and thanks to great genes, I looked twelve years old (a curse until I passed the age of forty). The SEAL training experience was the opposite of bootcamp. Sure, there were rules, lots of them. We marched and ran in formations just like in boot camp, but it was different. The point of BUD/S wasn’t to groom you, train you, or motivate you to become a SEAL. The purpose of the grueling twenty-six weeks was for you to find your inner SEAL. It was all psychological. The physical torture, the lack of sleep, the cold water, they were all environmental inputs to elicit a psychological state of mind. Each BUD/S student was to decide to stay, move forward, or quit. The struggle was between the voices in your mind, not with the SEAL instructors.
Even today, when I watch documentaries about the SEALs and the BUD/S course they commentators get it wrong. They show endless reels of desperate young men struggling physically to perform simple tasks like moving a heavy log or boat from one spot to another. They emphasize these visuals and declare the mystery solved. SEALs are tough because they were beat up and tested to the extreme at BUD/S. The truth is more difficult to stuff into a sound bite, hard to capture with a camera. The truth is this, a SEAL is what is left over after all the voices in your head make the decision to commit. That commitment is to yourself, an internal oath of sorts to never, ever, let your teammates down. To always strive to improve professionally so you grow in value to your team. After BUD/S no one gave us lectures about discipline, duty, and responsibility. Being a SEAL already encompassed all those values and more.
Don’t get me wrong, other services have elite programs much like the SEALs and they too find the diamonds hidden in the piles of coal. Time in uniform also gels one’s sense of obligatory discipline into a selfless, internalized character trait. As this behavior gets stronger people in uniform begin to cross the line from discipline to honor. A code of expected general conduct that after a few years in the service feels a part of everyone. This is also about the time when military professionals begin to completely assimilate into this unique culture. A culture comprised of dedicated experts all pulling together to make it work, whatever “it” may be. People willing to sacrifice, yes, sacrifice what they have, including their lives, for a greater good, for other citizens they will never meet. It is this fully formed merger of discipline, duty, honor, and culture that is so greatly missed by military veterans when they leave the service and attempt to enter the outside world.
I’ve tried to develop these same trends, traits, cultural norms, in every organization I’ve led since retiring after twenty years in the Navy SEALs. I’m convinced the level of effort is worth the results. Companies, small, medium, and larger, are collections of people. People who for the most part were raised to be considerate, forgiving, and attentive. The general level of intelligence and learning capacity has also steadily improved, convincing me it is easier than ever before to coach, mentor, and lead professionals toward a strategic goal, if they have commonality of purpose and vision. I’ve seen both basic discipline and the higher order, sense of honor, swell up and blossom over time, in a commercial enterprise. Each employee looking out for the greater good, convinced that by serving the team, department, division, company, or corporation, they will also be served personally through collective success.
Honor, ethics, honesty, discipline, these are all allies in the pursuit of exceptional outcomes. Tony Dungy, a successful NFL coach and leader, said in his 2011 book, Uncommon, “Integrity is what you do when no one is watching.” I’d add the other characteristics, behaviors, and traits noted in this article to Tony Dungy’s definition of integrity. Leaders require a core sense of right and wrong. A value system that communicates through behavior that they are focused on the greater good and prepared to lift all involved to attain that greater good. Call it a philosophy, a code, whatever you name it, it is a key ingredient when successfully leading strategic change.
So, now I’ve told you how my early childhood and military experience influenced and shaped my approach to leadership ethics. It works for me. I’ve continued to evolve and from time to time I stumble too. Nobody’s perfect, especially me. In fact, from my perspective the more you learn, grow professional, and take business risks, the more you are faced with fresh dilemmas that don’t fit an old solution or worse, lay in a grey area between what is clearly good and right and what is not. By now you will have lived your own unique experiences. Experiences that shaped your sense of right and wrong, good and bad. I suggest you sit down and take inventory of your value system, first as a person and then as a business leader. Do you sway, and wiggle, when faced with ethical challenges? Or do you see things clearly and well defined? This is a common situation we as leaders find ourselves in from time to time.
For example, I’ve been faced with the choice to reduce the labor force to make a financial target or live with the failure and take the heat. This happens across all industries and is a key theme of this essay. When is tactical expediency and operational optimization, detrimental to the long term success of the business? If we suppose I was an ethical and honorable leader in this situation, why would I not serve the short range goal of hitting a number? What’s the upside of retaining the staff and facing the short term failure head on? By now I hope you know which path I chose.
Attracting, vetting, and retaining top talent is the bane of every organization and a pain point every business leader faces with near daily frequency. Replacing these rare hires (ones that meet all your needs and specifications) can be costly, both in time and money. To cycle back and forth from hiring people to firing people may serve a short term objective, but it is dangerously short sighted and not strategic to be sure. Being strategic, being visionary, and planning accordingly, takes patience and a stiff resolve to weather the little storms on the way to the big pay off on the horizon.
A vision, supported by strategic thought, is like a navigation plan. I have tried to cut corners navigating austere terrain, desert, swamps, mountains, and dense forests. It never works. The map indicates cutting across, ignoring the prudent and well-thought out course, will save time. I have learned that the navigation plan is important. So important, it may be the second most critical element of success after the application of visionary and strategic leadership. By the time I began leading companies instead of Navy SEALs, I’d embraced the discipline of planning out the future. I don’t cheat across what appears to be easy “terrain” just to speed up the timeline or achieve some, but not all my business objectives.
It’s important for you to center yourself, inventory your values (ethics, moral code, integrity, honor, and so on), as they pertain to business leadership. As always, note your strengths and your weaknesses. Make a list of these and create a plan to continue what you do well and improve what you do not. We are all human, so don’t be too rough on yourself. We’re really talking about the basics here. Would you throw a peer under the bus to save your job? Or to get a promotion? Would you lay off ten employees to make your boss happy? Even if by doing so it made you and your business weaker, even vulnerable? Like I said, basic rules of right and wrong are a sufficient measure to answer these simple questions.
The behaviors discussed in this article are important at every level of leadership and in all types of organizations. Public, non-profit, and for profit alike. The very essence of being visionary and effective as a leader is to be aspirational, inspirational, and exciting. These are all positive points of professional focus and should be pursued with ethical and moral vigor. An ethical leader can change the world by example. Begin communicating the art of the possible to those eager to embrace your master plan. Lift their spirits during even the worst of times, especially during the worst of times. Treat everybody right and don’t cut corners!
Marty Strong is a CEO, Chief Strategy Officer, and the author of Be Nimble – How the Navy SEAL Mindset Wins on the Battlefield and in Business – www.martystrongbenimble.com