Following a string of scandals in the military ranks, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is looking to appoint a senior officer to ensure that “moral character” is given higher priority across all activities.
A steady stream of revelations about military misbehavior over the past several months shocked many observers. Opinion polls have shown that the armed forces are among the most respected and admired institutions in the United States.
But the alleged misconduct — ranging from cheating on tests to engaging in fraudulent contracting, sexual abuse and illegal drug use — is not surprising considering the sliding moral standards in society as a whole, says J. Phillip “Jack” London, executive chairman and chairman of the board of CACI International Inc. in Arlington, Va.
CACI is a $3.8 billion information technology and professional services company, with much of its business coming from government contracts. London, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, served as CACI chief executive officer from 1984 to 2007.
It was after he stopped running the company day to day that he began to spend more time “looking at trend lines,” London says in an interview. Among the trends he saw was a degradation of moral character in American society and its implications on individuals and institutions. His thoughts and observations were captured in a recently published book, titled, “Character: The Ultimate Success Factor.”
Hagel’s concerns about ethical lapses becoming a “growing problem” are not off track, says London. “I started thinking about this about three or four years ago,” he says. “I spend a lot time and energy looking at trend lines. Ethics is another trend line I see that is not going in the right direction.”
London believes every organization should put more emphasis on shaping its culture as one based on moral character. “I have incorporated the importance of character into CACI’s culture, and over the years I have written it into CACI management manuals,” he writes in the book’s foreword.
In the interview, he characterized recent instances of military misconduct as “sad and tragic.” He believes it will take more than appointing an ethics czar to bring about lasting change.
“I’ve been watching this for over four decades, so I’m kind of an authority” on the subject, he says. “This is not a problem that is fixed with a one-time memo solution,” London says. “You can’t hire an ethics officer” and expect immediate results.
What is happening now is the result of a protracted lack of attention to ethics, he says. “There hasn’t been enough focus on this in my opinion.”
There are countless reasons that could explain behavior lapses seen in the military, but London insists that they reflect a larger decline in the standards of what society finds acceptable. “It’s a cultural issue,” he says. “It will take a long time to change. Culture change comes with a sustained focus and reinforcing behavior in what you permit or not permit.”
The appointment of an ethics officer is a “good start, but it’s a longer term effort that is needed,” he says.
Military and corporate leaders have to understand the change that has taken place in society at large. “There is greater acceptance of unethical behavior. … I don’t think we reward excellence the way we should. We are lax in our behavior standards.”
CACI was swept up in its own ethics scandal in 2003 and 2004 for its alleged role in the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib during the war in Iraq. CACI employees served as interrogators at the prison under contract to the Defense Department. The company scored a major legal victory in 2013 when a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit that had been filed against the company for the alleged mistreatment of prisoners.
London fought back to clear the company’s name. The Abu Ghraib experience, he says, taught him that perception of misbehavior can be just as damaging to an organization as actual misconduct. “We were accused of all these things that were not true,” he says. “But once a story gets out there,” it is tough to counter. “I worry about lynch mobs and kangaroo courts,” he says.
Instances of corruption by government officials and contractors are directly attributed to the massive surge in military spending after 9/11. People were handed too much money and power over years of war. “There were temptations that came along with that,” London says.
London’s advice to current leaders is to keep hammering at the importance of “character” as a key to success. “The idea of character is probably the most important factor in business and government. There hasn’t been enough emphasis of integrity, ethics and values. I try to make a big deal out of it. And I’m going to continue to try to make a big deal out of it because I think we’re going in the wrong direction. … We’re going through some tough times. I don’t see this getting better.”