No one wakes up in the morning and decides to derail his or her marriage, career, or life. When people experience catastrophic failures, it usually is the result of ethical fading—a series of poor choices, each one a little worse than the one before, and each one getting further from the values they once thought they held. When Leonard Glenn Francis (“Fat Leonard”) began his efforts to bilk the U.S. Navy out of millions of dollars, he started with seemingly innocent gestures: a nice dinner, a fountain pen, a Cuban cigar. Then he graduated to luxury hotel stays, cash, and prostitutes in exchange for information about ship movements and favors directing Navy assets to ports controlled by Glenn Defense Marine Asia (GDMA). More than 500 military personnel, including about 60 admirals, have been investigated for possible ethical and legal violations in the GDMA case. Criminal charges have been filed against 33, and 15 Navy officials have pled guilty in federal court.
This is one of many high-profile cases in which leaders in positions of trust have violated the values to which they were once committed and often require others to uphold. Even in cases not as public, but where leaders have drifted from their moral compass, the deleterious impact on trust from those they lead and the public trust is profound.
The Navy’s evaluation, fitness reporting, and promotion systems are, by and large, performance based, with little attention paid to a person’s moral capacity to lead. Further, a significant number of leadership failures stem not from professional and technical incompetence, but from character issues. Over the past several years, there have been calls for a character evaluation to be a part of officer development and the screening process for command. Former Chiefs of Naval Operations Admirals Jonathan Greenert and John Richardson even worked character development into their Navy Leader Development Framework through schools, on-the-job training, and self-guided study.
If the Navy truly values character as a foundational pillar of leadership, the character traits considered for command positions need to reflect more than the ability to accomplish the mission. While professional competence is a must and should not be replaced, effective leadership at all levels requires a number of intangible skills. Emotional intelligence, strong moral compass, and empathic listening that focuses on both compassion and commitment to the mission are vital elements of effective leadership.
Emotional Intelligence. Emotional intelligence as a measure of leadership potential can be a bit of a hard sell. Military leaders tend to be uncomfortable with the word “emotions” in the context of combat leadership. However, emotional intelligence does not require leaders to carry tissues in their pockets for their troops, nor does it mean leaders must shed tears during an all-hands call or a change of command ceremony.
Emotional intelligence is characterized by knowing and managing one’s emotions, having emotional self-motivation, and recognizing and managing emotions in others. The Mayer measurement of Emotional Intelligence includes four branches: emotion perception, emotion facilitation, emotion understanding, and emotion regulation. Leaders well in tune with the three characteristics and who measure high in the four Mayer branches can capitalize on the emotions of their teams to motivate them to accomplish the mission. Further, leaders able to regulate emotions in themselves and others tend to be more successful in job performance.
Leaders must be aware of their own emotions and how they affect others. They must also be able to perceive emotions in others and work to raise or lower the emotional temperature as needed. A leader can defuse a tense situation by not losing control and remaining calm and decisive. Not only will this lower the emotional temperature in a conflict situation, but it also can instill confidence in leadership during emergencies or combat operations.
Leaders unaware of their emotions or unable to manage them can create toxic and hostile work environments. They can be too focused on short-term goals and unconcerned about the morale of the people who help them accomplish those goals. Further, their followers tend to see them as arrogant, self-serving, inflexible, and petty. This leads to eroded trust and poor command climate.
However, emotional sensitivity alone is not enough to advance the mission. Leaders must be cautious in how they use their emotional intelligence to manipulate their followers. Adolf Hitler rose to power by appealing to Germans’ national pride, their fear of economic failure, and their hatred of those they perceived to be at fault. Hitler used those emotions to gain support and ultimately plunged the world into World War II. Therefore, it is imperative for leaders with high Emotional Intelligence to also have a strong moral compass.
Spiritual/Moral Intelligence. Spirituality has been defined as an “innate drive to connect to something external and greater than ourselves, that lifts us beyond narrow self-interest and helps us see our deeper interconnectivity to one another and to the world beyond.”7 Spirituality is distinguished from religion, as the latter is a defined set of organized rituals and institutional enactment. Spiritual intelligence, then, is the level of spiritual development leaders have and the degree to which they can influence the spiritual development in those around them. The internal capacity to apply personal values and goals to an external organizational vision is the essence of moral intelligence.
Integrity, responsibility, compassion, and forgiveness are the characteristics that provide emotionally intelligent leaders with standards of behavior for themselves and their organizations. Without a high degree of spiritual/moral intelligence, leaders who have high emotional intelligence can use it to manipulate followers into committing terrible atrocities. Military members have the power and resources to do just that, as evidenced by incidents at My Lai in 1968, Abu Ghraib in 2004, and Haditha in 2005, among others. Leaders with high levels of spiritual/moral intelligence can avoid the moral and legal failings to which some leaders have succumbed.
Listening. In 2017, the Navy experienced five groundings and collisions, including those of the USS John McCain (DDG-56) and USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) that caused the deaths of 17 shipmates. The resulting Comprehensive Review revealed a high-tempo, high-pressure culture that slowly eroded standards and cause organizational drift from safety and maintenance processes. Yet, these technical deficiencies were not unnoticed by the crews. Another finding of the Comprehensive Review was that leaders can sometimes become so focused on the goal that they forget about the means by which the goal will be reached: “Under pressure to perform, and feeling ill-equipped to succeed, some leaders can stop listening to their team when feedback appears to detract from their immediate goals” (emphasis added).
No one likes to be told they are wrong, their ideas are bad, or that they are causing problems among the team. This is especially true for leaders. After all, they achieved success by having good ideas and building successful teams. This is why it is so important for leaders to recognize their fallibility and have trusted advisors who will be candid with them when they are drifting from their moral compasses.
This is not an exhaustive list of traits a successful leader must possess. Nor is there a means by which to effectively measure listening and morality as a prerequisite for leadership positions. However, job performance alone cannot be the sole qualifier for leadership.
The top priority in identifying leaders must always be their potential to accomplish the Navy’s mission. However, the means by which they accomplish the mission, the environment they cultivate, and the influence they have on the leaders who follow in their footsteps must also be critical elements in their selection. Selfish ambition, toxic leadership, and moral failures are as detrimental to mission success as technical incompetence; perhaps even more so.
The security of our country depends not just on winning wars, deterring aggression, and maintaining the freedom of the seas, but also on the honor, courage, and commitment of those who lead.