Recent news cases and an internal Pentagon report have revealed horrendous cases of personal excess, financial abuse, and personal exception to the standards and norms of professional military behavior by senior military officers from all branches of the Armed Services. The consequences of these ethical misdeeds by senior military leaders are a loss of trust and confidence in their abilities, decisions, and future actions. The public, members of the armed services and our allies all have to ask how can we be an effective nation at war when we can't keep our zipper zipped or our hands out of the till?
Further exacerbating this problem for the US Military is that senior military officers have been the harshest ethical critics of young men and women on the battlefield when they make a misstep. I'm not forgiving the abuse of prisoners or the unjustified shooting of a civilian. I am talking about mistakes driven more by the complexity of counterinsurgency combat than by personal ethical failings. Ethical mistakes by junior military members in combat zones are driven more by failures to be adequately prepared for the full range of battlefield complexity in a counter insurgency environment than by personal moral failings.
In a Feb. 3 article in the Wall Street Journal, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey stated that the military would focus more on ethical training among senior military officers. If you have to be trained in ethics after a 30-plus-year career (so far) in the US Military, I don't think it's going to work. What the US military needs to do is to look to business to see how it dealt with overcoming ethical issues.
Business leaders, by in large, understand who their full range of customers are and their underlying moral and fiduciary commitment to the effective operation of the enterprise. To a business leader, employees, shareholders, local community, government officials, suppliers, and, most importantly, the people who purchase the firms products, are all seen as important and relevant customers to the ongoing success of the enterprise. Indeed, it is this wide range of customer stakeholders that hold management accountable to both their personal and professional performance. Mismanage or disappoint any one of these vital customer bases and they leave. If they leave, you cannot stay in business. Indeed, lose shareholders, employees, critical suppliers and you cannot make your product; when you cannot make your product, your customers leave. Once your customers leave, the enterprise is finished.
Military leaders, at all levels, need to understand that they serve every member of the military and they do not serve their own outsized egos, their personal ambition, or their post-military paycheck. For the senior members of the military, their customers are the men and women of the armed forces. Next time a senior military member makes a decision, they need to ask themselves what is better for Airman Swanson or Private First Class Smith than for themselves. Considering the defense of the nation and the welfare and combat effectiveness of our own military personnel as the primary customers is the first step in reforming the failed ethical performance of senior military leaders.
Chad Storlie is a decorated combat veteran in the US Army and is the author of “Combat Leader to Business Leader” and “Battlefield to Business Success.” He also has worked in marketing roles for several large firms.