Strategic Leadership and Decision Making




Values and ethics are central to any organization; those operating in the national security arena are no exception. What exactly do we mean by values and ethics? Both are extremely broad terms, and we need to focus in on the aspects most relevant for strategic leaders and decision makers. What we will first discuss is the distinctive nature of ethics for public officials; second, the forces which influence the ethical behavior of individuals in organizations; and third, explore the actions strategic leaders can take to build ethical climates in their organizations.


Values can be defined as those things that are important to or valued by someone. That someone can be an individual or, collectively, an organization. One place where values are important is in relation to vision. One of the imperatives for organizational vision is that it must be based on and consistent with the organization's core values. In one example of a vision statement we'll look at later, the organization's core values - in this case, integrity, professionalism, caring, teamwork, and stewardship- were deemed important enough to be included with the statement of the organization's vision. Dr. John Johns, in an article entitled "The Ethical Dimensions of National Security," mentions honesty and loyalty as values that are the ingredients of integrity. When values are shared by all members of an organization, they are extraordinarily important tools for making judgments, assessing probable outcomes of contemplated actions, and choosing among alternatives. Perhaps more important, they put all members "on the same sheet of music" with regard to what all members as a body consider important.

The Army, in 1986, had as the theme for the year "values," and listed four organizational values-loyalty, duty, selfless service, and integrity-and four individual values- commitment, competence, candor, and courage. A Department of the Army pamphlet entitled Values: The Bedrock of Our Profession spent some time talking about the importance of values, and included this definition:

Values are what we, as a profession, judge to be right. They are more than words-they are the moral, ethical, and professional attributes of character . . . there are certain core values that must be instilled in members of the U.S. Army-civilian and uniformed soldier alike. These are not the only values that should determine our character, but they are ones that are central to our profession and should guide our lives as we serve our Nation.

Values are the embodiment of what an organization stands for, and should be the basis for the behavior of its members. However, what if members of the organization do not share and have not internalized the organization's values? Obviously, a disconnect between individual and organizational values will be dysfunctional. Additionally, an organization may publish one set of values, perhaps in an effort to push forward a positive image, while the values that really guide organizational behavior are very different. When there is a disconnect between stated and operating values, it may be difficult to determine what is "acceptable." For example, two of the Army's organizational values include candor and courage. One might infer that officers are encouraged to "have the courage of their convictions" and speak their disagreements openly. In some cases, this does work; in others it does not.

The same thing works at the level of the society. The principles by which the society functions do not necessarily conform to the principles stated. Those in power may covertly allow the use of force to suppress debate in order to remain in power. ("death squads" are an example.) In some organizations, dissent may be rewarded by termination-the organizational equivalent of "death squad" action. In others, a group member may be ostracized or expelled.

Group members quickly learn the operating values, or they don't survive for long. To the extent they differ from stated values, the organization will not only suffer from doing things less effectively, but also from the cynicism of its members, who have yet another reason for mistrusting the leadership, or doubting its wisdom.


So, there are some disconnects, and these disconnects create problems. However, the central purpose of values remains. They state either an actual or an idealized set of criteria for evaluating options and deciding what is appropriate, based on long experience. The relevance of the Army's values, for example, is apparent. When soldiers may be called upon to expose themselves to mortal danger in the performance of their duty, they must be absolutely able to trust their fellow soldiers (to do their fair share and to help in the event of need) and their leaders (to guard them from unnecessary risk). So the Army's values prescribe conditions that facilitate trust, a necessary element in willingness to face danger. Without trust, risk tolerance will be low, as will combat effectiveness.


So how do values relate to ethics, and what do we mean by ethics? One of the keys is in the phrase we quoted above from the DA pamphlet: "Values are what we, as a profession, judge to be right." Individually or organizationally, values determine what is right and what is wrong, and doing what is right or wrong is what we mean by ethics. To behave ethically is to behave in a manner consistent with what is right or moral. What does "generally considered to be right" mean? That is a critical question, and part of the difficulty in deciding whether or not behavior is ethical is in determining what is right or wrong.

Perhaps the first place to look in determining what is right or wrong is society. Virtually every society makes some determination of morally correct behavior. In Islamic countries, a determination of what is right or moral is tied to religious strictures. In societies more secular, the influence of religious beliefs may be less obvious, but still a key factor. In the United States much of what is believed to be right or wrong is based in Judeo-Christian heritage. The Ten Commandments, for many people, define what is morally right or wrong. Societies not only regulate the behavior of their members, but also define their societal core values. "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" represent core American values.

Experience often has led societies to develop beliefs about what is of value for the common good. (Note that societies differ from one another in the specifics, but not in the general principles.) One example is the notion of reciprocity. ("One good deed deserves another.") Another is the notion of good intent. ("A gentleman's word is his bond.") Yet, a third is the notion of appreciation of merit in others regardless of personal feelings. ("Give the Devil his due.")

These all contain implied "shoulds" about how people interact and behave toward one another in groups, organizations, and societies. These "shoulds" define collective effort because they are fundamental to trust and to team relationships that entail risk. The greater the potential risk, the more important ethical practices become.

Organizations, to some extent, define what is right or wrong for the members of the organization. Ethical codes, such as West Point's "A cadet will not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate those who do," make clear what the organization considers to be right or wrong. To quote again from the DA Pamphlet, "Values: The Bedrock of Our Profession," statements such as :

Loyalty to the Nation, to the Army, and to the unit is essential.

Selfless service puts the welfare of the Nation and the accomplishment of the assigned mission before individual welfare. All who serve the Nation must resist the temptation to pursue self-gain, personal advantage, and self-interest ahead of the collective good.

[Integrity] is the basis for trust and confidence that must exist between the leaders and the led. Furthermore, integrity is demonstrated by propriety in one's personal life.

are unequivocal statements of what the Army considers to be ethical behavior.

What does "generally considered to be right" mean? All one needs to do is to look at the positive values of society and the organizations one belongs to, and what is right or wrong should be evident. There is another aspect to be considered, however, and that is the influence of societal or organizational norms. Norms are the unstated rules, usually informally reached by the members of a group, which govern the behavior of the group's members. Norms often have a greater effect on what is and isn't done by the members of a group than formal rules and regulations.

The reason norms are important for a discussion of ethics and values is that norms may allow or even encourage certain behavior as "OK" that is not in keeping with society's or an organization's stated values. When there is a disconnect between stated and operating values, it may be difficult to determine what is "right." An example might be a company that has among its stated values to treat everyone with dignity and respect, but whose norms have permitted and perhaps even encouraged a pattern of sexual harassment over a number of years. Do those in the organization know that the behavior is wrong, but condone it nevertheless? Is it clear to the Bosnian Serbs that ethnic cleansing is unethical and wrong, or would it fall under the mantle of behavior that is considered to be acceptable in that society? Listen to the arguments in support of ethnic cleansing that have been made, and you will find that many of the perpetrators argued that they did nothing wrong, and were only righting previous wrongs done to them.


If ethics and morality are important for groups and organizations, they should also be important for public officials, and for very much the same reasons. York Willbern, in an article entitled "Types and Levels of Public Morality," argues for six types or levels of morality (or ethics) for public officials. By public officials, he means those who are in policy making positions in public institutions; in other words, strategic decision makers in the government, including the national security arena. The six levels he differentiates are: basic honesty and conformity to law; conflicts of interest; service orientation and procedural fairness; the ethic of democratic responsibility; the ethic of public policy determination; and the ethic of compromise and social integration.


BASIC HONESTY AND CONFORMITY TO LAW. "The public servant is morally bound, just as are other persons, to tell the truth, to keep promises, to respect the person and the property of others, and to abide by the requirements of the law" (Willbern). In many ways, this level only describes the basic adherence to moral codes that is expected of all members of a group or society. There are some basics of behavior that are expected of all if a society is to function for the collective good. For public officials, there is an additional reason why it is important to adhere to these basic moral codes and laws: they have more power than the average member of the society, and hence more opportunity for violation of those codes or laws. There also is the negative example that misconduct by public officials provides.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST. This relates to public officials, because it deals with the conflict between advancing the public interest, which a public official is charged to do, and advancing one's self-interest. The duty here is to ensure that the public interest comes first, and that one does not advance his own personal interest at the expense of the public.

Willbern uses embezzlement of public funds, bribery, and contract kickbacks as examples of pursuing personal interests at the expense of those of the public. The requirements for public officials to divest themselves of investments that might be influenced by the performance of their duties (or put them in trust) and to recuse themselves in situations where they have a personal interest are designed to help public officials avoid conflicts of interest. Ultimately, it still comes down to the individual making an ethical decision.

Avoidance of conflict of interest is often difficult because it is often hard to separate personal and public interests, and because individuals as private citizens are encouraged to pursue private interests through any legal means. One of the areas where there is the greatest potential for conflicts of interest is where public officials deal with private organizations which are pursuing their private interests, and where any decision by a public official on allocation of resources will favor some private interest. The fields of government contracting and acquisition are two areas where the possibility of conflicts of interest is high.

SERVICE ORIENTATION AND PROCEDURAL FAIRNESS. This level relates closely to the last, and deals with the responsibility of public officials to ensure their actions serve the public, and that the power they wield is used only for that purpose. It is easy to abuse the power that comes with public office. Procedural safeguards are designed to prevent that abuse. The moral obligation of public servants is to follow established procedures, and not to use their power to circumvent those procedures for their own convenience or benefit. Power must be used fairly and for the benefit of the public. One can again think of examples of public officials who have violated this moral charge by using their influence and power for their own benefit or for the benefit of special interest groups, or who have circumvented established procedures for their own benefit or convenience. One frequent example is the use of government vehicles or aircraft for nonofficial business.

These first three levels of public morality share one important characteristic: they all relate to the behavior or conduct of public officials. These three levels are the areas that get most of the attention in discussions of ethics, this is where public officials are most likely to get in trouble. However, there are three additional levels of public morality equally important. These deal with the content of what public officials do, "the moral choices involved in deciding what to do, in pursuing the purposes of the state and the society" (Willbern).

THE ETHIC OF DEMOCRATIC RESPONSIBILITY. Given that public officials are operating within a democratic system, they either are elected by the people or appointed by an elected official. This confers upon them the obligation to carry out the will of the people. However, public officials also have the responsibility to make moral choices consistent with their own values, and that may be in conflict with what they perceive to be the will of the people.

Willbern contends that the public official acts according to his or her own judgment, rationalizing that it would be the will of the people if they were well enough informed on the issue. To give one example of this level of public morality, consider whether or not the representative in Congress is morally bound to support policies and legislation which his constituents overwhelmingly support but he personally opposes.

THE ETHIC OF PUBLIC POLICY DETERMINATION. This level involves the most difficult ethical choices, because it concerns making moral judgments about public policies. The responsibility is to make moral policies; the difficulty is in determining how moral a policy is. Public policies almost always deal with very complex issues, where ethical choices are rarely clear, and it is often difficult to determine if a policy is right or wrong. For example, many public policies deal with the distribution of limited resources. Is it right or wrong to slash funding for one program, or to increase funding for another? In almost any decision, there will be winners and losers, and there will be some benefit for some and cost to others. "Right" and "wrong" may not apply. Equity and fairness are important considerations, but not always easy to discern. The determination of how much funding to provide for national security, and which social programs to fund, involves ethical choices of the most difficult type. What is the difference between equality and equity? Consider the controversy around affirmative action programs: are they examples of moral public policies?

THE ETHIC OF COMPROMISE AND SOCIAL INTEGRATION. This final level deals with an area not as salient as some of the others. It deals with the necessity for compromise in a society. A society with irreconcilable differences on fundamental issues will be torn apart. Hence, it becomes a moral obligation of public officials to engage in give and take, working toward compromise in the policies they develop. One often sees legislators in our political system establishing positions where they may not get all they want from particular legislation, but will settle for some of what they want. Willbern contends that compromise, rather than standing on principle, is moral, because without compromise there will be discord and conflict, and disintegration rather than integration of the society.

Public officials are given the trust of the public to develop and carry out policies that are in the public's best interest. Living up to this trust has a significant impact on the national will; public confidence is essential to the exercise of national power. Public officials have a moral duty to act in a trustworthy manner.

Why, then, do individuals behave unethically? One reason is the complexity of the issues leaders deal with, and the difficulty in many instances of determining which is the most ethical alternative. There are several systemic factors. One is the competition for scarce resources. It is easy to slip into unethical acts to gain a competitive advantage in the race for position or power. A second is conflicting loyalties, which Johns labels "the most troublesome ethical dilemma facing public officials." The Iran Contra affair is a case of unethical behavior on the part of North, Poindexter, Secord, and McFarlane because of misplaced loyalty to the executive chain of command.

Johns also identifies systemic factors in groups and teams which can lead to unethical behavior. One is groupthink, which can occur in a homogeneous group with a strong leader. A second is the presence of idealogues: individuals who view their own extreme positions as "right" and any opposing positions as "wrong." A third is the organization's response to dissent. There are few incentives for "whistleblowers" or those who try to expose unethical behavior in organizations. Organizational norms encourage "going along" and discourage questioning the unethical actions of others. This can quickly compromise ethical standards in any organization.





Kenneth R. Andrews, in "Ethics in Practice," contends that there are three aspects to ethical behavior in organizations: the development of the individual as an ethical person, the effect of the organization as an ethical or unethical environment, and the actions or procedures developed by the organization to encourage ethical behavior and discourage unethical behavior.


Most of an individual's ethical development occurs before entering an organization. The influence of family, church, community, and school will determine individual values. The organization, to a large extent, is dealing with individuals whose value base has been established. This might imply that ethical organizations are those fortunate enough to bring in ethical individuals, while unethical organizations brought in unethical people. But it is not that simple. While the internalized values of individuals are important, the organization has a major impact on the behavior of its members, and can have a positive or negative influence on their values. One example of the development of ethical individuals is the service academies. In their admissions processes, the academies attempt to get individuals of good character with the values integral to the military profession. However, the academies also recognize that their core values may be different than those prevalent in society, and they devote considerable effort to the development and internalization of their core values. As is evident from periodic breaches of integrity at the academies, e.g., cheating scandals, these attempts to instill core values do not always succeed.

There are three qualities individuals must possess to make ethical decisions. The first is the ability to recognize ethical issues and to reason through the ethical consequences of decisions. The ability to see second and third order effects, one of the elements of strategic thinking, is very important. The second is the ability to look at alternative points of view, deciding what is right in a particular set of circumstances. This is similar to the ability to reframe. And the third is the ability to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty; making a decision on the best information available.


As important as these individual characteristics are, the influence of the organization is equally important. The ethical standards that one observes in the organization will have a significant effect on individual behavior. "People will do what they are rewarded for doing" (Andrews). The organization has its greatest impact in the standards it establishes for ethical and unethical conduct in its formal reward systems. Informal norms also have a strong influence on individuals' behavior as do the actions of the leaders of the organization. Strategic leaders must understand that their actions, more than words alone, will determine the operating values in the organization.

The influence of the organizational context is underscored in "Why Be Honest If Honesty Doesn't Pay?" In this article, Bhide and Stevenson note that there often are no economic or other incentives to encourage ethical behavior and discourage unethical behavior. They contend that it most often is the dishonest individual who gets ahead, and that cases where unethical behavior was punished are far outweighed by those in which there either were no consequences or unethical behavior was rewarded. The Gordon Ghekkos of the world (the unethical corporate executive played by Michael Douglas in the movie "Wall Street") often get ahead, because they rarely are held to account for their actions.

While these observations might lead one to a cynical view of ethics in organizations, Bhide and Stevenson come to a different conclusion. They see room for optimism despite the lack of financial gain for ethical behavior, or the absence of negative consequences for unethical behavior. Their reasoning is based in the fact that so many people do behave ethically, in spite of the apparent lack of gain. Ethical behavior must be intrinsically rewarding; and most people behave ethically because it's the right thing to do. People are guided by their personal value systems. They often "choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong" specifically because of their intrinsic values of what is right.

Bhide and Stevenson make this caveat:

We should remember, however, that only as long as most of us live by an honorable moral compass. Since our trust isn't grounded in self-interest, it is fragile. And, indeed, we all know of organizations, industries, and even whole societies in which trust has given way either to a destructive free-for-all or to inflexible rules and bureaucracy. Only our individual wills, our determination to do what is right, whether or not it is profitable, save us from choosing between chaos and stagnation.


Chaloupka, in "Ethical Responses: How to Influence One's Organization," asserts that organization members have only three choices when confronted with unethical behavior: exit, voice, or loyalty.

Exit is the most direct response: if you can't live with behavior that does not meet your own ethical standards, leave. However, exit is not only a direct response, it is a final one, so the personal and organizational consequences must be considered. The most important personal consequences are the costs. Where do you go from there? What other options are available? How marketable are you? Can you afford the financial loss?

There are specific organizational consequences as well. Will the ethics of the organization's leaders change? Will they do business with someone else who doesn't have the high standards you do? In leaving, one gives up the ability to influence the organization directly. When considering exit, one must ask, "Could I have had more of an impact by remaining in the organization and trying to change it from within?"

Voice. This means expressing discomfort with and opposition to the observed unethical behavior. To whom do you voice your objections? The obvious choice is your supervisor. But what if your supervisor condones the unethical behavior, or worse, is its source? You may be jeopardizing your position, and maybe your membership in the organization. A second choice is to go to senior management. This also has potential risk. The senior leadership may be condoning or even directing the unethical behavior. This action may bring your loyalty into question. If so, your objections may be covered up or ignored, and you may end up being forced out of the organization.

On the other hand, it may be that the senior leadership is unaware of the unethical behavior, and you may have initiated an organizational response eliminating unethical behavior and restoring ethical standards. A third option is to go public, to engage in "whistleblowing." This is also risky, because it can lead to reprisals with negative consequences. The level of risk depends on the commitment of the organization to high ethical standards and on its willingness to encourage whistleblowing in its own best interests. Many organizations have shown commitment to ferreting out unethical individuals and maintaining high ethical standards by establishing procedures for anonymous reporting of ethical breaches and safeguards to protect whistleblowers.

Exit and voice may be combined. An individual resigns in protest and goes public with his or her reasons for leaving. This leaves the individual vulnerable to the label of an employee who quit before being fired, but it also can lead to increased credibility as someone acting on conviction in spite of personal cost. Exit combined with voice is most effective if taken by someone at the upper levels of the organization. An organization can more easily ignore the "exit + voice" of a lower level employee than it can the resignation of a strategic leader, followed immediately by a press conference. The widely publicized resignation of former President Bush from the National Rifle Association over what he viewed as extreme actions is an example of exit combined with voice. It undoubtedly had a much greater effect on the NRA than the resignation of someone less well known and respected. The resignation of James Webb as Secretary of the Navy is another example of effective exit combined with voice.

Loyalty. The final response to unethical behavior in an organization is loyalty. This is the alternative to exit. Instead of leaving, the individual remains and tries to change the organization from within. Loyalty thus discourages or delays exit. Loyalty also may discourage public voice, since being loyal to the organization means trying to solve problems from within without causing public embarrassment or damage. Loyalty can also encourage unethical behavior, particularly in organizations which promote loyalty above all. These organizations discourage exit and voice, and basically want their members to "go along" with organizational practices. An interesting question is, "Can an individual be loyal to an organization by engaging in exit or voice as a response to unethical behavior?"

Chaloupka maintains that both exit and voice must exist for continued organizational effectiveness. Additionally, an organization cannot maintain high ethical standards without mechanisms for eliminating unethical behavior. Also, loyalty is not always a virtue. Loyalty should be predicated on the organization's ethical demonstration that it is worthy of loyalty. If the organization condones unethical behavior, it relieves the individual of any responsibility to be loyal.


How can the strategic leaders of an organization build an ethical climate? Andrews suggests a number of steps that foster corporate ethics. First are the actions of the strategic leadership and the way they deal with ethical issues. The pattern of top leaders' behavior determines organizational values. A second step is to make explicit ethics policies. Ethical codes are one common example. The next step is to increase awareness of how to apply those ethical codes. Training on how to deal with situations with an ethical dimension, and how to anticipate situations that involve ethical choices, can go a long way toward ethical institutional practices.

Another step to increase the salience of ethics is to expand the information system to focus on areas where ethics may come into play. Knowing what actually is going on in the organization is essential to understanding the ethical principles which govern behavior. The information system should also support ethical behavior, and allow the strategic leader to know when or where there are potential ethical breaches so that corrective action can be taken. The real danger is that when unethical behavior is unnoticed, or not punished, members will assume it is condoned by the organization's leadership.


Establishing moral principles means determining the core values which should guide the organization. O'Brien suggests four for consideration: localness, merit, openness, and leanness. By localness, he means adopting a philosophy of pushing power down to the lowest level possible, and encouraging initiative and autonomy. By merit, he means directing actions toward the overall goals of the organization, and what is best for all. By openness, he means being forthright and honest in all dealings. And by leanness, he means efficient use of resources and economies when possible.



Encouraging leaders to pursue their own moral development is critical at higher levels because strategic leaders set the moral climate for the organization. O'Brien believes that moral development is even more important than professional development. "Creating a culture based on moral excellence requires a commitment among managers to embody and develop two qualities in their leadership: virtue and wisdom." However, creating an organization characterized by moral excellence is a lengthy process. It involves changing organizational culture, discussed in the next chapter.

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