01/02/2013 03:56 pm ET Updated Mar 04, 2013

Restoring Honor in Military Leadership

The American military has commanded great respect from Americans for a very long time. In a recent Gallup Poll, 75 percent of respondents said that they have "quite a lot or a great deal of confidence" in the military. This institution was the highest rated among 16 in the poll.

Recent actions by senior military leaders threaten this level of trust. Gen. David Petraeus resigned as director of the CIA on Nov. 9, 2012, acknowledging an extramarital affair with his self-selected biographer, Paula Broadwell, with whom he had developed a close association while still commanding troops in the field. Gen. John Allen, Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, was embroiled in controversy in mid-November because of thousands of pages of emails between himself and a Tampa socialite, Jill Kelley, who was also a friend of Petraeus. His pending appointment as NATO, Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, was put on hold. Both men also wrote letters to the Superior Judge of the District of Columbia on behalf of Kelley's twin sister, who was engaged in a child custody battle. In late November, Retired Vice Adm. Daniel Oliver a former chief of naval personnel, was fired by the Secretary of the Navy from his civilian position as president of the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), after an IG investigation revealed that he and his provost did not follow proper hiring guidelines and inappropriately solicited funds from the nonprofit NPS Foundation to pay their own out-of-pocket expenses. At the end of November, retired Brig. Gen. James Shelton shared with the New York Post a letter written to him by Petraeus in which the latter admitted that he "screwed up royally." Shelton commented that "He's a man, and all men have an Achilles' heel."

The Army has a set of core values. Faithfulness to them is evaluated every time an officer is rated on his or her performance. These values include honor, integrity, courage, loyalty, respect, selfless service and duty. Petraeus, possibly Allen, and Blair have dishonored these values, and Shelton does no honor to himself by dismissing Petraeus' behavior as just the thing that men do.

All of these men know full well -- and much of their careers no doubt lent testimony to the fact -- that the public faith that comes with their Oath of Office is a sacred trust, even when they have left active duty and are serving in a civilian capacity.

So we are left with two questions: Why did they violate that trust and what can be done about it?

The answer to the first question is both simple and complex. They dishonored the uniform because they ignored their personal responsibility to live up to professional military values. Why they did so is the complex part. Social science research offers at least two explanations. In their article "The Bathsheba Syndrome: The Ethical Failure of Successful Leaders," Dean Ludwig and Clinton Longenecker suggest that with success comes an inflated belief in one's personal ability and a loss of strategic focus. Successful leaders have both more latitude in decision making and fewer constraints -- and often fewer voices -- to challenge their thinking. Their egos and their isolation at the top can overcome their reason. In a research paper titled "Why We Aren't as Ethical as We Think We Are," Max Bazerman and his colleagues suggest that we have both a "should" self, which tells us what we ought to do, and a "want" self, which represents our more primal urges. If asked how we will respond to an ethical challenge, our "should" self answers. But at the moment where temptation presents itself, the "want" self takes over. Later, faced with what we have done, our "should" self has to reconcile our actions with our ethics, and it usually does so through rationalization so that we can continue to think well of ourselves. Gen. Shelton's explanation of Petraeus' behavior is that "should" self speaking after the fact.

Taken together, this research helps explain both why personal responsibility lapses and how leaders succumb and square it with themselves. But it does little to help prevent these lapses. That requires both a personal and an institutional set of actions.

On the personal level, leaders can help prevent the failure of personal ethics by being aware of the dangers and by surrounding themselves with people who will disagree with them. One wonders if Petraeus had anyone who challenged him on why he was allowing a female author to embed herself with his team in a combat zone to write his biography while troops were still dying in the field. One wonders if Allen had anyone who could challenge him on why he was developing a close personal relationship with a socialite or allowing his name to be used in a custody battle.

We commonly explain ethical failures with the statement that so-and-so was a "bad apple." That is comforting but, in these cases, insufficient. As the multiple examples above show, there seem to be a lot of bad apples around. So we have to at least question whether there is a bad barrel at work as well -- whether there is something systemic going on that at the least creates the conditions that make unethical behavior more likely. The allure of fame, association with social and political elites, and access to money seem to help explain some of what we have witnessed in these cases.

On this institutional level, it appears that the military has a lot of work to do as an organization. Part of that work is in professional military education -- how officers are trained to be aware of and prevent ethical failures. Part of that work is in a more rigorous application of core values in officer development and promotion. Part of that work is in policing its own profession -- and not making excuses when it should offer condemnation of wrongdoing. Part of that work is also developing clearer institutional codes and restrictions on the inevitable pressures of modern society when senior officers take on social and political roles. And part of that work is to showcase the military exemplars that should serve as beacons for the personal behavior of the officer corps.

In this last regard, one thinks of Gen. George C. Marshall, who refused to attend White House social functions or go to Hyde Park with FDR because either might compromise his objectivity. Marshall refused personal honors while men and women were dying in combat, arguing that they are the ones to be honored, not himself. He turned down lucrative offers to write his memoirs, even in retirement, because he felt that this would inevitably draw him into commenting on personal relationships with those with whom he served. And he told his senior officers, in an early meeting during his tenure as Army Chief of Staff during World War II, that "I am disappointed in all of you. You haven't disagreed with a single thing I have done all week."

Marshall knew and knew how to apply the highest standards of integrity. He also knew how to develop a culture that would question his own behavior -- before it was too late. Personal and institutional ethical failures are not inevitable.