Our Best Defense — A Culture of Character

By Phillip "Jack" London
Character is a critical piece of our national security. As recent headlines have shown, security breaches, bribery, cheating, lying and sexual misconduct erode both trust in our institutions and our nation’s credibility.

Likewise, unethical behavior has the potential to negatively impact our country’s resilience and readiness.

A lack of character can pose a risk at any level of an organization. Just one poor decision or action by one person can jeopardize an entire organization. Organizations across the national security community can mitigate such risks by recommitting to instill and uphold a culture of character. So how is a culture of character created? What can be done to ensure that our national security starts with doing the right thing?

Organizational trust is embodied in culture, and the authority to lead comes from trust. A culture of trust also depends on having the right people. For me, the right people have positive attitudes, unquestionable integrity and a commitment to the mission.
Attitude is of utmost importance.  No amount of expertise can make up for a poor or inconsistent attitude from an employee or leader.

Integrity is key because customers, partners and colleagues will not want to work with people they can’t trust. Being reliable, delivering a quality performance and demonstrating good judgment to do the right thing are all characteristics that show a person or a company has integrity.

Commitment is also key because a person can have the best intentions with a positive attitude and honesty, but this is all lost if the intentions are not matched with actions that are consistently and directly aligned with the values and mission of the specific project or organization. The most dedicated, trustworthy and reliable people are those who are mission-oriented and therefore prioritize the mission. Oftentimes an organization can be put at risk when team members are individually or politically oriented people, meaning they prioritize themselves over the group mission.

Successful cultures are based on ethics and accountability. Accountability is knowing and accepting that you alone are responsible for who you are, for your character and for your success — or failure — in life. It is critical to maintaining a position of leadership and strength, for a lack of accountability creates potential for great risk.

However, a commitment to accountability is not easy, especially when things go wrong. It’s necessary to take ownership of our decisions, our actions and the consequences, good and bad, at home and around the world.

Empowerment and empathy have been my “double E” secret for leadership success. The first step toward empowerment is to know what empathy is. It is an action of understanding — knowing your people and what motivates them. This notion of empathy relates back to the step of building trust, as it helps establish a rapport and connection with others on a meaningful level.

Empowerment is providing your people the opportunity to be in charge. We have to help our people rise to the challenges they face every day. Strong decisions and actions come from strong teams. In order to build strong teams, leaders should enable, encourage and enrich their employees and colleagues to do the right thing.

Successful organizations must make culture an ongoing priority and an all-out effort. Culture is established with foundational documents that state the organization’s mission, values, and guiding principles. They are reinforced by organizational codes of conduct and ethics, which must be reviewed regularly. And repetition is the key to ingraining the culture throughout the organization.

CACI created a series of management manuals that were specifically developed to help employees practice and exemplify the CACI culture and to ensure that they understand their role in assisting the company with achieving its strategic goals. Its culture is founded on strong values, and good character in particular, and serves as its corporate identity — what its employees live and breathe. It impacts everything it does. Its strong sense of culture helps it make tough decisions instinctively and breeds productivity, collaboration and innovation.

One good example of ingrained culture is the Marine Corps. Its mottos of MVP – mission, values, pride and semper fidelis communicate the Marines’ culture of mutual trust, collective pride and self-discipline.

If we want to see things take a better course, we all have to make a commitment to good character and serve as role models with our actions and our words. A culture that emphasizes “good character” is the sine qua non for our nation’s readiness and resilience.

The character of the nation reinforces the legitimacy of its global leadership, the vitality of our economy and credibility of our cultural influence.

As Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said, “Ethics and character are absolute values that we cannot take for granted. They must be constantly reinforced.” If this means a character turnaround — for the security and the success of our country — so be it. 

Topics: Defense Department

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