Academic journal article Parameters

Ethics and Army Leadership: Climate Matters

Academic journal article Parameters

Ethics and Army Leadership: Climate Matters

Article excerpt

Abstract: As US news and media reports continue to expose unethical behavior within the American profession of arms, it is important to explore how Army leaders--and their organizations--have lapsed into questionable ethical conduct. This article addresses the tension between competence and character within the Army's culture, offers lessons from the business world on ethical behavior and leadership, and critiques current Department of Defense (DoD) and Army approaches to assessing ethical climates. (1)


US news and media reports continue to expose unethical behavior within the American profession of arms. Some observers may claim this exposure is nothing new. Recently, however, the Army revealed 129 commanders of brigades and battalions have been relieved since 2003. (2) Of that number, 25 were relieved in combat zones. More troubling (and paradoxically reassuring) is the Army's disclosure that seven general officers were relieved and two court-martialed. In 2005, for instance, the four-star commander of US Army Training and Doctrine Command, General Kevin Byrnes, was relieved for disobeying a lawful order from the Army Chief of Staff General Peter Schoomaker. In addition, "since 2001, the Army vice chief of staff has issued 100 memoranda of reprimand, 147 memoranda of concern and conducted 45 verbal counselings of general officers" for myriad behaviors contrary to good order and discipline in the Army. (3)

This article explores how Army leaders and their organizations have lapsed into questionable ethical conduct. Among other things, such an examination enables one to discern lessons for senior leaders and stewards of the Army profession. Rather than offering tabloid exposes (there are plenty), the following analysis focuses on systemic organizational assessments and solutions to ethical situations, not on the details of any specific recent case. This article concludes with two recommendations for Army leadership: 1) develop evidence-based developmental programs on individual character and moral development, and 2) develop empirically validated research instruments to assess ethical climates as part of the DoD or separate Army organizational climate survey. Strong ethical foundations are essential for the Army profession and the nation it serves.

While the number of reported occurrences of unethical behavior is relatively small compared to a large DoD population of nearly 3 million active, reserve, and civilian members, even isolated cases receive a high degree of media attention and undermine public trust in the profession. As one reads the reports of investigations and courts martial, the root causes of such behavior are invariably attributed to individual failings--the senior leader's lack of character and the lack of moral courage of those around the leader to challenge questionable behavior. However, these assessments rarely consider differing levels of analysis: individual, organizational, and institutional.

Concerns about the Profession

In some cases, relieving high-level military officers was part of the civil-military relations exchange, which often requires a delicate balancing act between civilian officials and uniformed officers. Striking examples during the Global War on Terror are the cases of Commander of US Central Command Admiral William "Fox" Fallon, Air Force Chief of Staff General T. Michael Moseley, and Commander of US Forces and International Security Forces Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, in their clashes with senior civilian leaders--the president and defense secretary. (4) Of greater concern are those cases in which behavior contrary to professional ethics is the issue. There have been high-profile investigations of senior officers for violations of Joint Travel and Joint Ethics Regulations like US Africa Command's General William "Kip" Ward (substantiated), and US European Command's Admiral James Stavridis (unsubstantiated). …

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