This selection is reprinted from Josephson Institute’s The Power of Character, which includes diverse essays from a variety of accomplished and interesting people.
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Admiral Charles Larson was superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy from 1994 to 1998. Prior to that, he served as commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command (CINCPAC), the senior U.S. military officer in an area covering more than half the earth’s surface. After first serving as superintendent of the Naval Academy for three years in the 1980s, Larson, now a retired four-star admiral, was brought back to the academy in 1994 to restore the elite institution’s reputation and reform its teaching of ethics after a highly publicized cheating scandal. His decorations include the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, six Navy Distinguished Service Medals, three Legion of Merit Medals, the Bronze Star Medal, the Navy Commendation Medal, and the Navy Achievement Medal. He has also been decorated by the governments of Japan, Thailand, France, and Korea.
By Admiral Charles R. Larson
Just out of the Naval Academy and flight school, I was assigned the job of training officer at my first squadron. I discovered that many of our people hadn’t completed required classes and that a major inspection was on the horizon. My department head, the man whose performance evaluations would affect my career, informed me of the “standard” way these things were handled. “Go ahead and make up phony records,” he said. “Take two or three different-colored pens, put your X’s on there, smudge up the marks a bit so the records look old, and it’ll look real.”
I had no idea the ethical and leadership principles I had just been taught at the Academy would be tested so soon! I wasn’t anxious to start my military career by antagonizing my superior officer, but sacrificing my integrity wasn’t an option. I pledged to do a great job of getting everything up-to-date, but I said I wasn’t going to fabricate the records. “If you want that done,” I said, “you’ll have to put someone else on the job.” Fortunately, the officer backed off. We did take a hit on the inspection, but it wasn’t serious. I learned the valuable lesson that one could live up to high principles and survive.
This was just one experience that taught me that officers – and, for that matter, all people with responsibilities – face the continuous temptation to subordinate principle to expediency. Now, as Superintendent of the United States Naval Academy, I am responsible for assuring that we instill in the next generation of leaders the moral courage to live up to the highest ethical values. I take that responsibility very seriously. Underlying every aspect of our training is the belief that one of the most essential attributes of a good officer is a “sense of ethics,” often referred to as character.
Why we teach ethics
I believe that moral integrity is the most important asset and duty of a military professional. If integrity fails, all else fails. There is no feeling of outrage equal to that of a public shocked by scandal when we fall short of the high standards expected of us. From incidents as diverse as civilian casualties on the battlefield to sexual misconduct, we have seen the consequences to the military when individuals stray from strict adherence to ethical values like honesty, respect, and simple law-abidance. At the Naval Academy, we have taken great strides to overcome the impact of a major cheating incident that occurred several years ago.
As we approach the task of training leaders, we are keenly aware of the social forces that bear upon the values and character of the pool of young people who enter the Academy. We are concerned with mounting evidence that America is losing its moral bearings. We are especially concerned with a growing gap between the standards of ethics and integrity that seem prevalent in society as a whole and those that are indispensable to a military environment. We have thought a great deal about the erosion of values among young people and its potential impact in the Armed Forces and, as a result, we have intensified our efforts to instill values and build character.
We are, of course, not the only branch of the military concerned with ethics and character. Each branch has a statement of core values that serves as the basis of leadership training and evaluation. The Army’s singles out Loyalty, Duty, Integrity, and Selfless Service. The Air Force lists Integrity, Service Before Self, and Excellence. At the Academy, we build on the Navy and Marine Corps’s three core values: Honor, Courage, and Commitment. These sorts of values, however, can’t simply be imposed from the outside. The challenge is to get students to understand, appreciate, and assimilate them so they translate into daily habits. One of the primary responsibilities of leadership is to teach and model values by word and example.
Good leaders are accountable for organizational standards by what they say and don’t say and by what they do and don’t do. As they prepare their units for inspections, exercises, and actual missions, leaders send unmistakable signals about values. They communicate messages about what is desired and expected by the way they handle subordinates who tell them something they don’t want to hear. Subordinates analyze virtually everything a leader says or does. Consequently, everything leaders do either bolsters or undermines the ethical foundation of their organization.
No one wants to go to untrained doctors or fly with untrained pilots, yet, for some reason, we believe that most anyone can be a “good person” or an “ethical leader” without any formal training in what it means to be “good” in real-world settings. Thus, at the Academy we stress two different aspects of ethical behavior. First, we seek to instill values and principles that will help our students know what is right. Second, we seek to strengthen their moral willpower, the courage to do what is right even when it may be costly or risky.
How to make ethics practical
We don’t overemphasize moral quandaries, those knotty unsolvable ethical dilemmas that tend to generate more heat than light and reinforce the false idea that all matters of ethics are just matters of opinion. Instead, we stress real-world ethical issues, the kinds of everyday challenges officers are likely to face: giving honest readiness reports that could result in negative performance appraisals, dealing fairly and respectfully with subordinates, avoiding fraternization and sexual harassment, and so forth. While it makes for a fascinating discussion, we realize that very few, if any, of our graduates will ever have to deal with the weighty moral issues of launching a nuclear attack or targeting civilians in wartime.
During my career in the Navy I have seen extraordinary demonstrations of character and moral leadership. The best leaders comply with laws and policies not because they worry about getting caught but because their conscience, their moral fiber, forbids them from doing what is wrong. The exemplary leaders we want to produce honor promises as a matter of principle, not prudence. They play by the rules; respect the rights, claims, and possessions of others; and work diligently, even when the boss isn’t looking, not simply out of self-interest but as a matter of personal honor.
At the Academy, I like to hold up as an example Admiral Red Ramage who put his career at risk when, as a lieutenant commander, he persisted in telling the full truth about the design failures of magnetic torpedoes. As a result, he was relieved of command of the submarine USS Trout. His integrity, however, won the day and a year later, in 1944, he commanded another submarine that single-handedly decimated a heavily escorted Japanese convoy. For this, Congress awarded him the Medal of Honor.
Sometimes moral courage does not result in awards or adulation, but one always earns pride and self-respect through uncompromising integrity. We don’t want to discourage personal ambition and a healthy regard for one’s career. The key is finding the “golden mean” between “I” and “we” and being able to answer this: “Would I be proud to tell my family what I did today?”
How to understand loyalty
We also devote special attention to the particularly troublesome issue of loyalty. I have found it helps to think of two types: loyalty to the unit and loyalty to the institution.
Loyalty to the unit – a better phrase may be esprit de corps – is essential for small-unit success in combat and in the preparation for war. This is the loyalty that causes young men and women to make unbelievable sacrifices, possibly including their own lives. There can also be a dark side to this more personal aspect of loyalty. Unfortunately we experienced this at the Academy several years ago during our cheating incident. The idea of “protect your buddy at all costs” is loyalty gone awry if your buddy has done something wrong – like cheat on a test. The idea that people are more loyal to their comrades or shipmates than they are to their unit, service, nation, or Constitution is unacceptable to me because it puts the interests of individuals over the interests of the whole institution. Every officer must ultimately face the fact that personal loyalty must have its limits, that one’s higher loyalty is the institution and the nation.
How we teach ethics
My number-one goal as superintendent is to develop the character of the Academy’s young men and women. We tell midshipmen that we will give them the opportunity to exercise and strengthen their moral muscles because ethical fitness is essential to our mission and integral to their overall development. We’ve linked our character- development program in a practical way to things people will experience in the naval service as a whole. We intend to produce graduates who will become leaders both in the fleet and society by stressing integrity without compromise and excellence without arrogance.
We want our character-development and leadership programs to be the benchmarks by which other military and civilian programs measure their effectiveness. Toward that end, we have created a fully integrated, four-year character-development program that runs across the curriculum. As soon as freshmen arrive for “plebe summer” before their first fall term, they are introduced to the concept of honor and responsibility. They come to be familiar with backbone of the Naval Academy’s value system, “The Honor Concept of the Brigade of Midshipmen,” which states:
Midshipmen are persons of integrity: They stand for that which is right. They tell the truth and ensure that the full truth is known. The do not lie. They embrace fairness in all actions. They ensure that work submitted is their own, and that assistance received from any source is authorized and properly documented. They do not cheat. They respect the property of others and ensure that others are able to benefit from the use of their own property. They do not steal.
We encourage midshipmen to think about and discuss the Honor Concept so they can fully commit themselves to it as a matter of principle. We try to instill the idea that the demands of military leadership far transcend the simple precepts of not lying, cheating, and stealing. These precepts are absolute bare minimum standards for the professional soldier, sailor, airman, or marine.
In any organization, first impressions are so important that the indoctrination period can be critical. For us this is “plebe summer” where we begin to shape the attitudes of incoming midshipmen. It’s unlikely they will ever again be so focused on what the Academy communicates to them regarding values and expectations. We discuss loyalty extensively in our honor education program during that pivotal first summer and climax the training with a trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Here, midshipmen can see firsthand what can happen when misplaced loyalty, blind obedience, and a lack of concern for human dignity are taken to the extreme.
In saying that midshipmen “stand for that which is right,” we do not promote legalistic thinking that differentiates between what is legally right and what is morally right. It’s not enough that the leader doesn’t break the law, and we unequivocally reject the idea that “it’s okay as long as you don’t get caught.” We also must be careful not to encourage or reward the kind of cleverness that looks for legal loopholes or manipulates the system for personal advantage. In our emphasis on doing what is right and honorable rather than what is legal, we hope we are a constructive counter-culture force in society.
Recently, we introduced a core course entitled “Ethics and Moral Reasoning for the Naval Leader.” It combines the talents of accomplished philosophers and experienced senior naval officers to give midshipmen a sound foundation in both theoretical and applied ethics as these relate to the military profession. And during each of the four years the midshipmen will spend with us, they will participate in specially designed “Integrity Development Seminars” – 90-minute monthly forums that address case studies that pose ethics and integrity issues in realistic situations. The discussions give students a chance to look within themselves to define and clarify their basic moral values, to share their thoughts with others, and to see why ethical attributes are important and how they relate to our profession. We offer these courses to prepare our midshipmen to tackle tough ethical challenges they may face at the Academy as well as in their careers in the fleet.
But we know we can’t accomplish our character-building goals by classroom courses alone. Though such formal study of ethics and integrity can heighten the student’s ability to perceive and deal with tough ethical issues, we go much further. We consciously infuse our values and concern for character development into every aspect of the Academy experience. We expect our officers, teachers, and students not to simply talk about character but to live it. It is a matter of the overall spirit and atmosphere of the organization.
And we have incorporated “ethics across the curriculum.” This ensures that our core courses – English, history, political science, and naval leadership – contain strong ethical components. Many of our majors courses have added ethical segments. For example, in 1997, all computer science majors received a minimum of 12 hours in ethics instruction in their computer science courses.
Additionally, our advanced foreign language courses debate ethical issues in their particular language. This Academy-wide effort is to impress upon the midshipmen that there are no areas where ethics does not in some way come into play. And before one can properly address an ethical issue, one must realize that he or she is confronted with an ethical decision or at least a moral component to the decision.
Because of the authority and responsibility entrusted to a military officer, we have a special concern in teaching midshipmen how to deal fairly and respectfully with other people. Often it comes down to what is referred to as “the golden rule” as it was first described by Confucius: Treat other people the way you would like to be treated and treat every person with dignity and respect. To this end, we supplement our character-development program with a four-year, human-relations education plan that emphasizes human dignity and mutual respect. The most serious challenges we can see for military ethics as we enter the 21st century will lie in the areas of human dignity and mutual respect. Minority issues, gender issues, and fair and equitable treatment of all service personnel should be of major ethical concern to all commanders and leaders.
Why do I feel so strongly about our efforts at this time? The fact that the United States is the only remaining superpower has, in my opinion, profound ethical implications for those of us in the military and government. We are normally quite good at analyzing problems in terms of the enemy, economic factors, technological issues, political considerations, etc. However, we also need to look at the options in the light of what is the right thing to do. And we must be clear about the stakes. As Dr. Jonathan Shay argues in Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, leaders who violate basic accepted moral values in times of great stress can permanently destroy the character of individuals under their command.
At its best, education has to do with examining and instilling values. At the Academy, we know one cannot become “ethical” and have “good character” simply by reading a book or listening to a lecture. Developing good character means developing good habits, fixed with wise and rigorous training. People have good judgment because they work at it. Although it may be impossible to teach character, we believe it can be learned by a committed student who is encouraged by the example of leaders. And true leaders know that character is not about never failing; it is about never quitting the effort to be ethical, to do the right thing regardless of the cost.