Out of character and in trouble

  • Published
  • By Gene Kamena and Navy Capt. Scott Askins
  • Air War College
Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series on character and leadership. The second part discusses warning signs and ways to stay in character.

Many good things have occurred in the military over the past two years, to include the successful drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq, NATO-led military operations in Libya and the training of Afghan security forces; yet there is one statistic that eclipses these gains and successes. In 2011 alone, 25 naval officers, two brigade commanders and a wing commander were relieved of duty.

These officers spent years, even decades, developing character traits required to meet the challenges and responsibilities of senior leadership in today's armed forces. What causes some officers, upon attainting positions of greater responsibility, to supplant hard-earned lessons obtained over decades of successful and honorable military service with bad behavior emanating from character flaws?

The reasons for dismissals over the past two years run the gamut of causes, but nearly all of them can be lumped into the overarching category of acting out of character. This is defined as acting out of the accepted professional and personal norms, and in a manner dissimilar to what is typical of a leader's demonstrated past behavior.

Given the rigorous screening process for command, the high rate of firings is simply staggering. Considering an assembly of senior officers deliberate for days to ensure only those most capable are selected to lead our Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen, it is astonishing to see the numbers of senior leaders relieved this past year.

It is impossible to determine with certitude why those leaders made the out-of-character decisions they did, decisions that ultimately led to a loss of confidence in their ability to continue in positions of trust and authority.

When leaders behave badly, when they act out-of-character, they do more than just let themselves down. They let us all down. Leaders have been groomed, mentored and guided over the years, and then were chosen to lead based on exhibited and sustained superior performance. They represent the best among us. They live where competition is fierce and lapses in judgment are never tolerated.

What causes leaders to act out-of-character?

They believe their own press. Throughout their careers they have outpaced their peers and been lauded through annual appraisals as "the best of the best," "beyond reproach" and "water walker." As such, all institutions send signals by selecting people for positions of authority, promoting people to higher ranks, selecting people to attend elite schools. It is easy to see how success and reinforcing signals can easily be interpreted as "I am special."

Institutional pressure and pressure to conform is lessened as leaders advance in their careers. At some point in the career of most, they become the institution and help define what is and what is not acceptable.

They take an "I deserve this" or "just this once" attitude. Successful people work hard and choose to sacrifice for the good of the organization. Some leaders develop a "they owe me" attitude, as in, "They owe me for the years of hard work and sacrifices made to achieve personal and organizational success."

They like it too much. Power and control can be intoxicating. For some, their worth as a person and as a leader is measured by the amount of power and control they exert over others. This kind of leader, the power monger, tends to treat others poorly, for they see other people simply as a means to an end, not as a means in and of itself.