Ethics: the Leader’s Struggle

So. I’ve been thinking about how there seems to be problems within the general officer/flag officer ranks when it comes to ethics – as in, the violations of ethics, specifically. And for a long time I’ve wondered how that happens. Then I took command. Let’s talk for a sec about this.

So I’m currently just a company commander. The lowest level of actual command. I have, in all reality, very little authority/power. But it’s a position where people defer to you; look to make decisions; your time always belongs to someone else. You’re always going, going, going.

There have been times where I forget to eat, forget to grab a coffee, and my XO or some of the other officers will drop off a sandwich for me, or I’ll find a coffee at my desk when I get back in. I always try to track them down and pay them back, but…over time, it can feel…expected. Because you’re the boss, obviously, and people should take care of you. And you start to get an unconscious feeling of slight superiority. And you let your guard down. And then you have to catch yourself and remind yourself that you serve them.

It’s a constant self-correction that needs to happen as a leader, in order to get rid of this feeling of somehow being special. And this is just at the company level, mind you. Magnify this to the battalion level. Brigade. Division. Corps. Theater. Army. 

Throw on some stars, and now you’ve got an aide or two, you’ve got a security detail, you’ve got units rearranging their schedules to accommodate you. You’ve got staffs that are there to brief you and give you all your information at a glance. The creeping ego must be absolutely terrifying to fight off. It must be a constant day to day struggle to remain conscious of the ego.

But as we can see, there are many who don’t take part in that struggle. They give up. They let the little things creep up on them, allowing the “I work hard, I deserve it” mentality to take hold. It starts small. And then it slips rapidly downhill into severe ethics breaches.

This is why introspection on the part of leaders is so important. The constant course correction. The constant moments of reality checks. Surrounding yourself with people who will provide honest feedback, without being sycophants. Always remembering that we serve. That’s when those trite sayings such as “leaders eat last” become a course correction that can be an automatic part of your day. Always pack your own ruck. Carry your own gear. Qualify on your weapon. Conduct your physical fitness test with your troops. The little things that ensure that you remember the basics of what you are: a service member.  Never lose sight of this.


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About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare. Support this blog’s Patreon here.