Counting the Costs of Winning: Doing the Right Thing, on a Difficult Day… When the Whole World is Watching
By Martyn Cook.
Leaders under pressure must keep themselves absolutely clean morally. The relativism of the social sciences will never do. They must lead by example, must be able to implant high-mindedness to their followers, and must have earned their followers’ respect by demonstrating integrity.
Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale, 1987
The Australian cricketers Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft’s tearful press conferences after their ‘ball tampering’ scandal were interesting to watch. It was obvious that they have made a decision that they will regret for the rest of their lives. A ‘win at all costs’ mentality in the team had resulted in a decision by the Captain and Vice-Captain to cheat. The decision demonstrated little regard for the moral and ethical foundations for which Australian Cricket is renowned. What they did damaged a team, a sport and, according to the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, was a shocking disappointment to their nation.
And yet if we look on and judge them from out moral high ground we run a risk: the risk of considering ourselves to be beyond temptation.
The British Army is task orientated. In war we must win and defeat our enemies. Coming a close second is simply not enough. And yet, we don’t accept that we must win at any cost. The ball tampering scandal gave me the opportunity to take stock of my own moral and ethical approach to achieving success. It also gave me the opportunity to remind myself of what the British Army do and why we do it.
A difficult decision, on difficult day, when nobody is watching
At Sandhurst, where I was recently one of the Chief Instructors, we often told the Officer Cadets that part of the very difficult challenge of command is to ‘do the right thing, on difficult day, when nobody is watching’.
Moral courage – ‘doing the right thing’ – is the foundation of training at Sandhurst. In fact, ‘doing the right thing’ as opposed to ‘doing things right’ is a classic mantra used to explain the difference between a leader and a manager.
In explaining to Officer Cadets what we mean by ‘the right thing’ Sandhurst instructors sometimes refer to the Army’s Values and Standards. Courage, integrity, discipline, respect for others, loyalty and selfless commitment. At other times the criteria for ‘the right thing’ are the behaviours that make up the Army Leadership Code. Whichever the instructor chooses, all of Sandhurst’s training considers the moral and ethical outcomes of a leader’s actions. Legal and ethical action in war or peacetime is an essential tenant of a professional army. It is the framework that every British Soldier must always operate within.
So what led the senior leadership of the Australian Cricket team to make such bad decisions? Unfortunately the British Army still has isolated cases of getting it wrong. A ‘win at all costs’ attitude, or one of disregard for morals and ethics, leads to, at best, a severely damaged reputation. At worst it damages an organisation’s ability to do its job.
In today’s world of social media and smartphones the world is constantly watching. It is ready to make instant judgements, whether they be on military operations or a sports team’s judgement. Perhaps now we should tell the Officer Cadets something different. Today the challenge of leadership is ‘doing the right thing, on a difficult day, when you think no one will see… but the whole world is watching.’
I thought about the ball tampering scandal. I reflected on my military experience. And I looked back on my time teaching our future leaders about ‘doing the right thing’. First, what may have been the causes of such unethical action? Second, how can the British Army train and educate their young men and women to ensure they are prepared for these ethical challenges of leadership?
Why do we do it?
Appendix One of the Army Leadership Doctrine is an excellent starting point to understand the sorts of leadership environments and factors which can lead to moral and ethical failing.
The most alarming reason is when immoral actions result from an organisational culture that has little regard for moral or ethical behaviour. In a culture like this cheating, lying and deception are commonplace or are actively supported by the senior leadership team. The organisation either has no values and standards or they are simply ignored. Such culture resonates with the very worst of financial institutions during the crisis in 2008. One would hope an organisational culture like this doesn’t exist in the Army. And yet we must always guard against it because leaders are responsible for building a culture of moral courage.
Toxic individuals in an organization can act as a cancer that spreads. This is especially damaging if they are in senior positions of leadership. Bullying causes others to either act in a way they would not normally, or act in a way to please the leader that has power over them. It is easy to say that a follower should speak out and stand up for what is right, but history is littered with examples of how difficult this can be. As leaders we must always guard against being that person.
Bad judgement. People Make Mistakes
The third reason for unethical decisions is that people will make mistakes. It’s human nature to do so. Poor judgement, lack of understanding and an inability to comprehend the outcomes of their actions will lead people to make bad decisions and mistakes. In dealing with bad judgement the difficulty is that while individuals must be held accountable and punished for their actions, they must also learn from them. This isn’t always easy to do. It isn’t always easy to identify the difference between poor judgement and a lack of values. But remember, the final stage of justice is rehabilitation and the process should start soon after the punishment has been served.
How do we prevent it?
But causes without solutions aren’t much use to us. I am not sure whether the Australian Cricket Team do ethical training; but perhaps they should. How do the British Army, or any organisation, safeguard itself against these causes or unethical behaviour?
Organisational Leadership, Values and Standards
First, an organisation must define its common values and the standards of behaviour expected. For the British Army these are its ‘Value and Standards’. Then it must define the behaviours of its leaders in supporting the values. For the British Army this is done through its Leadership Doctrine and Code.
An organisations values should be simple, relevant and unambiguous. Both the values and the leadership behaviours must be explicit, known and understood. Most importantly, they must both be practised.
And it is worth noting how difficult it can be to get values and leadership behaviours to be actually practised. It can be difficult for even for the most established and capable of companies or sporting teams. In fact it is often more difficult for established and capable teams. Changing an existing and successful culture can be a long and difficult process.
For values to embed in an organisation they must be embedded in policy at every level: Recruiting policy, promotion policy, disciplinary policy, training policy. Values become embedded when we feel their touch at every decision. It is only at that point that we live them and we guard ourselves against breaking them.
Education and Training
Training a team to exercise their moral and ethical judgement reduces the risk of them getting it wrong in the heat of battle or competition. Before deploying to Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and Iraq I spent hours in ‘Judgemental Training’. These scenario-based activities tested the use of force, its impact and the repercussions of getting it wrong. Explicit training to question and discuss your actions and those of others was invaluable. It led to much better decision making when in the most difficult and dangerous of environments. Everyone in the Army does this judgemental shooting training, but do we include judgemental moral training in our other exercises? We should if we want our soldiers to understand moral and ethical decisions.
Education is essential too. Cross-disciplinary study of other organisations and sectors helps to develop your moral judgement. Whilst studying for my Masters degree I wrote a paper on the moral and ethical implications of High Frequency Trading in the City of London. Though not directly linked to the military, the critical analysis of the problem unquestionably developed my own critical analysis of moral issues.
Finally, you must continue to iteratively review the morality of your organisations actions and performance. Doing so will make your organisation better at identifying unethical decisions and weaknesses. But, more importantly, the worlds of sport, warfare and business are continuously changing. Behaviours and actions today will almost certainly not be acceptable tomorrow. Similarly, actions that have been previously accepted are now no longer tolerated. I made this point recently regarding the role of an instructor.
There are several methods you can use to review the morality of your actions. One that I have found to be particularly strong is peer review. When values are embedded in an organisation peer review of behaviours is very powerful. It can lead to internal self-policing of values but it does rely on the team’s values already being strongly embedded and the absence of toxic or poor leadership.
I also found great value in conducting ‘pre-mortems’. You can take the emotion out of analysing the ethics of a decisions by considering the possible outcomes before the event rather than waiting for an emotional post-mortem after the event. During planning Rehearsal of Concepts (RoC) Drills and war games test and evaluate the tactical value of our plans before we conduct an operation. The British Army, and other organisations, should get in the routine of formally doing so for the morality of our plans.
Steve Smith and his team forced me to consider our own moral certainty, in a game where the stakes are higher in both human and reputational terms. We may never find out who really knew about the ball tampering and what led to individuals’ poor decisions. What is absolutely clear is that their actions had long lasting and far-reaching ramifications well outside of the match and dare I say their sport.
It would be naïve to believe that we could eradicate organisational ethical failings. But our profession of arms and our role as leaders force us to constantly guard against moral and ethical failure. For us, as with sportsmen and women, the world is always watching and our nation will be judged on our behaviour. We must, as Admiral Stockdale wrote, uphold integrity and high mindedness in our followers at all times in order to remain morally clean.
The British Army’s Leadership Code and Doctrine were launched with a great fanfare in 2015 and 2017 respectively. What we must do is continually ensure that their messages are embedded in our training, education and culture. We must constantly assess our moral and ethical judgement just as we do our tactical judgement.
And doing these things must not be simply a fad. They must be maintained by leaders at all levels to ensure our reputation. Otherwise we, too, risk sitting tearfully in front of the world’s press, as they wonder where our leadership went wrong.