I recently was invited to share my work on Giving Voice To Values at the United States Air Force Academy’s National Character and Leadership Symposium (NCLS) in Colorado Springs. I came away from these three days of informational and inspirational conversations with a number of lessons and questions that are relevant for values-driven leadership in any context, whether it be military, corporate, non-profit or public sector. I thought I would share two of them here.
1. The Authority/Autonomy Tension
In any organization, there is tension between respect for authority on one hand and the need for individual thinking and autonomous choice on the other. Addressing this tension becomes especially critical in a military context, where arguably the consequences for both bucking chain of command and also for failing to question that same command and assuming autonomous leadership when required can be much higher.
At NCLS, I learned that the more obedience to authority that is required in a particular context, the more responsibility and even necessity there is in that same setting to provide opportunities for true deliberation and even debate. It is this open discussion that enables individuals to truly understand the meaning, the purpose and the intent behind the rules, behavioral norms and hierarchy such that they can both more fully respect and embrace the rules but also understand when that purpose is truly at risk from authority illegitimately enacted.
I learned this from a cadet who told me that although he himself had been socialized into the Academy in his first year there by means of a intensely uncomfortable, high-pressure, high-stress process that is intended to teach cadets to understand and obey the rules of their new world, he was now concerned about how to support the new recruits he had been assigned to mentor. Should he turn a deaf ear to their challenges and complaints, thereby adhering to the “break them down before you build them up” approach?
I tentatively suggested that he might share with them that he himself had felt the same way when he entered the Academy and then he share some of the coping mechanisms that had been helpful to him. My escort nodded quietly, satisfied, and commented, “Yes, that is exactly what I decided to try to do.” In other words, he had found a way to both respect and attend to the needs of the individual (his own as well as those of the cadets he mentored) while still respecting the authority he had pledged to serve.
2. Unintended Consequences of Honor: Cynicism
As you might imagine at a conference focused on character and leadership, the subject of honor and the U.S. Air Force Academy Honor Code came up often. Interestingly, one of the most common issues raised both by cadets as well as faculty, was concern over the “non-toleration” policy. That is, adherence to the honor code means both pledging to adhere to its rules but also to reporting the infractions of one’s peers. There are good reasons for this, of course, not the least of which is a concern for maintaining safety and order in situations where individual violations might put a whole group at risk. Nevertheless, the non-toleration rule pushes against another highly valued commitment among the cadets, which is loyalty.
This tension between loyalty (to one’s squadron, for example) on one hand and integrity (that is, adhering to the guidelines one has pledged to obey) on the other is another occasion where insistence on blind adherence can undermine the very honor the Academy is trying to build. If cadets do not have the occasions to name these tensions and to generate and practice “scripts” and action plans for resolving them, a kind of cynicism is inadvertently fueled. The unstated tension begins to feel like hypocrisy. In fact, “cynicism” was one of the most commonly voiced concerns among cadets.
This is not to say that cynicism was the rule, but it is in fact one of the unintended and dangerous consequences of institutional tensions – like authority vs. autonomy or loyalty vs. integrity – when they are left unaddressed.
The cadets know this and the bravest of them named the contradictions during the NCLS conversations. It was this ability to identify the inconsistencies out loud, in front of their superiors that impressed me most about both the cadets and their faculty who had conceived and convened the NCLS. These tensions were not resolved but they were named – a first step.
And there was explicit discussion of strategies – including the “scripting” and action-planning approach that I promote – for enabling cadets to find constructive ways to both respect the honor code they have embraced and also find creative ways to help their peers understand the value in at best avoiding code infractions in the first place, or at least understanding the long term benefits and reasons for coming forward when they occur. In other words, the concept of loyalty must be re-framed and redefined in such a way as to serve a higher and longer-term purpose than simply avoiding immediate censure.
I can’t help but recognize that these same tensions – authority vs. autonomy and loyalty vs. integrity – are ubiquitous in the corporate settings as well. Perhaps we can learn from the NCLS commitment to naming them, reframing them and practicing ways to resolve them.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force / Mike Kaplan
About the Author
Mary C. Gentile, Ph.D., is director of Giving Voice to Values (GVV), a business curriculum launched by Aspen Institute and Yale SOM, now based and funded at Babson College. GVV is a pioneering approach to values-driven leadership that has been featured in Financial Times, Harvard Business, Stanford Social Innovation Review, among many others, and is being piloted in over 100 business schools and organizations globally. The book – Giving Voice To Values: How To Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right – is out from Yale University Press (www.MaryGentile.com, 2010).
Gentile is also senior research scholar at Babson College, senior advisor at the Aspen Institute Business & Society Program and an independent consultant based in Arlington, Mass. Previously Gentile was a faculty member and manager of case research at the Harvard Business School.