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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Leading with Character: Honor

This week’s post introduces the U.S. Coast Guard’s core value: honor. In 1993, then-Commandant Admiral Bill Kime stood up a working group to develop core values for the Service. As his tenure ended, the incoming Commandant, Admiral Robert Kramek, did the honorable thing and continued his predecessor’s work. In 1994 he introduced the core values: Honor, Respect, Devotion to Duty. Today those values are the moral compass that guides the conduct of each service member. Let’s talk about how we can learn to live and serve more honorably.

Honor – Integrity is our standard. We demonstrate uncompromising ethical conduct and moral behavior in all of our personal actions. We are loyal and accountable to the public trust.

A synonym for integrity is trustworthiness. At its core, honor is all about trust, whether it be an individual’s trustworthiness or public perception of an organization’s trustworthiness. With trust, a leader is poised to succeed. Without trust, a leader is doomed to fail. The formula for success resides in the Coast Guard’s definition of honor.

Yet living the core value of honor can be a challenge. How can we demonstrate uncompromising ethical conduct and moral behavior in all of our personal action — not just sometimes, but always? We do it using strength and courage.

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An HONOR bracelet from jeweler Freida Rothman’s Strong Women collection. She featured Adm. Sandra Stosz in an interview on her website as one of several “Women of Honor” in celebration of Women’s History Month. (Photo by Sandra Stosz)

Living the Core Value of Honor Requires Strength and Courage

Strength and Courage are two sides of the same coin:

Strength = Strength of Character

Courage = Adherence to Core Values

Strength is standing up for something you believe in. There’s a saying attributed to Alexander Hamilton, the Coast Guard’s Founding Father, that I live by: “Those who stand for nothing fall for anything.” Every time a leader faces a situation involving difficult moral considerations, she can choose to either strengthen her character by adhering to her core values and standing up for what she believes in or erode it by doing the wrong thing or, worse yet, by doing nothing.

Courage means resolving to do the right thing, even when everyone is watching and judging what you do. That might mean making an unpopular decision or holding someone popular accountable for wrongdoing. This is not the same as “doing the right thing when no one is looking.” Quite frankly, that’s easy and should be expected of any leader of character. It’s simple honesty. Moral courage is much more complicated, and requires strength of character.

Most people want to work for values-based leaders in an organization that sets high performance, behavior, conduct, and ethical standards that apply equally across the workforce. No double standards. Leaders of character raise expectations for adherence to standards, creating a fair and respectful workplace that encourages everyone to thrive and achieve top performance.

In the armed forces, compliance with established standards is necessary to preserve the good order and discipline that sets the conditions for individual and unit success. A model example of an executive who raised expectations for workplace conduct is Australian Army General David Morrison.

A few years ago, the Australian Army faced a misconduct problem involving the inappropriate treatment of female soldiers. General Morrison took immediate action and delivered a passionate address reinforcing the standard of conduct expected of everyone in the Australian Army. He finished his speech with a resounding admonition: “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.”

General Morrison’s powerful speech is available here.

I encourage every leader to invest a few minutes to watch and learn. His speech resonated from Australia across the Pacific Ocean to the U.S. armed forces, where people commended it as a prime example of values-based leadership. At the time, I was serving as superintendent at the Coast Guard Academy. General Morrison’s compelling message inspired Academy leaders, including cadet leaders, to raise expectations for adherence to established standards. General Morrison made it clear that leaders of character have an obligation — one could even say a moral obligation — to appropriately address the failure to adhere to established standards.

Look in the mirror. Do you have the strength and courage to uphold your honor by doing the right thing even when everyone’s watching and judging? Do you hold people accountable even when it’s uncomfortable?

Please join me again next week for more on Leading with Character.

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Sandra L. Stosz
Vice Admiral Stosz, a Homeland Security Today editorial board member, started out in the U.S. Coast Guard as an ensign serving on polar icebreakers, conducting national security missions from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Her 40-year career is filled with leadership lessons gleaned while breaking ice and breaking glass as the first woman to command an icebreaker on the Great Lakes and to lead a U.S. armed forces service academy. She finished her career as the first woman assigned as Deputy Commandant for Mission Support, directing one of the Coast Guard’s largest enterprises. She has lectured widely on leadership, and has been featured on CSPAN and other media outlets. In 2012, Newsweek’s “The Daily Beast” named Vice Admiral Stosz to their list of 150 Women who Shake the World. Proceeds from “Breaking Ice and Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters” will be donated to the US Coast Guard Academy James M. Loy Institute for Leadership.

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