Leading Truthfully: A Reflection on “Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the [US] Army Profession”

Canadian and American military members exchange their flags at 5 Wing Goose Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador during Exercise VIGILANT SHIELD 17 on October 17, 2016.
Photo: MCpl Krista Blizzard, 5 Wing Public Affairs GB2016-10-215

Some years back, I read a report out of the Strategic Studies Institute and U.S. Army War College Press that really impacted me and has lingered in my mind ever since. Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession, published in 2015 and written by Dr Leonard Wong and Dr Stephen Gerras, is a frank account of how members can become ethically numb, and, therefore, react dishonestly in the face of ever-growing and cumulative loads placed on the forces. These overwhelming workloads can include things like mandatory training, reporting requirements, data requests, compliance checks, personnel evaluation reporting, and the list can go on and on.

Although this report focused on the United States Army and gathered qualitative data from its members, I suggest that my Canadian colleagues reflect on the points presented in this blog article, and then perhaps read the full report, to see if any of these points are relatable in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) context. If so, what should/could be done about a culture of dishonesty?

Truth as an Important Aspect of our CAF Ethos

Military professionals will most often consider themselves to be truthful and honest. Our military ethos calls for it. In the summary of Duty with Honour: The Profession of Arms in Canada (2003), it states that integrity, “calls for honesty, truthfulness, uprightness, the avoidance of deception…” (p. 17). In the new Canadian Armed Forces Ethos: Trusted to Serve (2022), it points out that “a person with integrity is truthful, strong of character and reliable,” (p. 25) and that integrity requires, “pursuing truth regardless of personal consequences” (p. 24). Our professed value in the truth is even shown in the motto of the Royal Military College: “Truth– Duty- Valour.”

The reality that was shown through this qualitative research with the US Army, which can be hard to hear or accept, is that impossible deadlines, the deluge of reporting requirements, the inundation of directives from above, and so much mandatory training is often difficult, if not impossible, to fit into the schedule. These examples can sometimes lead to, what members may tell ourselves, are white lies for the greater good. Add in a culture of “Yes, Sir!”, “Yes, Ma’am!” and “no-fail” and it can be the perfect set-up for dishonesty to become the norm and, therefore, for members to constantly have to choose between lying or standing out from the crowd to be truthful. This, in the military culture, can lead to scorn from their colleagues and supervisors and potentially hurt their advancement (e.g. being the only one who is unable to report 100% compliance in X,Y,or Z).

Examples

Some applicable key words found in the report, that may or may not ring a bell, include: “hand-waving”, “fudging the numbers”, “massaging the truth”, “checking the box’, “pencil-whipping it,” “bending the truth, “giving them [leaders] what they want”. One member stated that “You gotta make priorities, we met the intent, or we got creative” (Wong & Gerras, 2015, p. 8). In “feeding the beast” with inaccurate statistics, in reporting 100% compliance when 85% would be more accurate, when signing that a personnel briefing took place when it did not, when reporting that unit members have completed mandatory training when, actually, time did not allow, when filling in colorful PowerPoint slides with questionable numbers, many lead to members experiencing “ethical fading.” Ethical fading occurs when the “moral colors of an ethical decision fade into bleached hues that are void of moral implications. Ethical fading allows us to convince ourselves that considerations of right or wrong are not applicable to decisions that in any other circumstances would be ethical dilemmas” (Wong & Gerras, 2015, p. 17). This can lead to ethical numbness and then, at that point, we must question whether dishonesty will grow beyond trivial small “numbers fudging” to more monumentally dishonest acts.

The report lists various examples related to training, compliance, finances, and actions taken during operations related to reporting. Being a Training Development Officer (TDO), I was reminded of the dishonesty of acquiring a course certificate from merely flipping through e-learning pages and not applying oneself to actually learning the content. The report shared a situation where one of the “smart” members sat down at a computer and quickly completed the course and printed the certificate for all nine section members. Another example included a Sergeant printing off course completion certificates for the whole team, knowing full well that the training had not been given.

As I am presently working at the Chief, Professional Conduct & Culture, I am especially disturbed by the following example:

“One captain spoke of trying to complete mandatory Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program (SHARP) training:

We needed to get SHARP training done and reported to higher headquarters, so we called the platoons and
told them to gather the boys around the radio and we said, ‘Don’t touch girls.’ That was our quarterly
SHARP training.
” (Wong & Gerras, 2015, p. 13)

Again, this example took place in the US Army, but it is worth reflecting on. In a situation where mandatory training requirements are so heavy that there is physically not enough time in the day to complete them, along with the avalanche of other administrative responsibilities that are continually passed down from the highest levels, is this example a common result? “It [the US Army] is excessively permissive in allowing the creation of new requirements, but it is also amazingly reluctant to discard old demands” (Wong & Gerras, 2015, p. 18). This may or not be relatable to the CAF context but, in my opinion, it is worth some consideration.

What Can Be Done?

So, how do the authors of this report suggest moving beyond dishonesty in the profession?

1) Acknowledge the Problem– We should discuss these things openly and honestly without fear of reprisal. Leaders should lead the discussion. They should admit that they know these things happen at all levels from their own experiences.

2) Exercise Restraint– Restraint must be given towards the number of no-fail tasks and #1 priorities. Workload must actually be accomplish-able. Mandatory training and new directives can come from all directions at all different levels and leaders must “shoulder the burden of prioritizing” (Wong & Gerras, 2015, p. 30). Leaders must also consider what is actually required and valuable in terms of reporting and, then, prioritize appropriately. If everything is vital, then nothing is. Perhaps 100% compliance, for example, is not realistic in a given context and 85% compliance could actually be an acceptable risk. If a legacy requirement is no longer important, consider getting rid of it. Also, if the requirement is important, ensure that the member providing information, completing the training, or checking whatever box, understands why it is important. If the importance is understood, it should decrease dishonest reporting or the fudging of numbers.

3) Lead Truthfully – Leading truthfully could include “speaking truth to power” while insisting that training module X,Y, or Z is not worth being mandatory training for the whole organization. Leading truthfully informs subordinates that accurate reporting is more important that achieving 100%.

Reflections

In terms of reflections, do we, in the CAF, condone dishonesty or perhaps even expect dishonesty in some circumstances/situations? Are we generally overwhelmed with the deluge of requirements that seem impossible to meet? Do our members and leaders sometimes face the feeling of dissonance that comes with needing to “feed the beast” bogus &/or inaccurate information in a time crunch, all the while feeling the need to maintain a self-identity of “a person with integrity [who] is truthful, strong of character and reliable,” (DND, 2022, p. 25) as required by our CAF Ethos. Does this report describe merely a problem within the US Army, or are there aspects of this report that ring true and relatable for you within the CAF context?

I hope I have given you some good food for thought and that I have done justice in summarizing this excellent report. If you have found this topic interesting, I highly recommend that you take the time to read and reflect on the full report: Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession

Reference

Leonard Wong Dr. and Stephen J. Gerras Dr., Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession ( US Army War College Press, 2015), https://press.armywarcollege.edu/monographs/466

National Defence. (2003). Summary of Duty with Honour: the Profession of Arms in Canada.

National Defence. (2022). Canadian Armed Forces Ethos: Trusted to Serve.

Effective Leadership During Times of Change

What are the characteristics of a good leader?  What behaviours does an effective leader practice?  Is the specific context an important factor to consider in relation to effective leadership styles? Does a period of change call for a specific type of leader?

It seems to me that, currently, there are required changes everywhere I look. In fact, change seems to be the only constant. In the DND/CAF, we are working towards a much needed culture change, including building a more diverse and inclusive environment. In the larger Government of Canada, including within DND/CAF, there are modernization efforts in terms of the required shift towards becoming more digital. Since the start of the COVID pandemic, an exodus to home offices led to many changes in the ways in which we work and in the ways in which we train and educate. One could argue, as I would, that a climate of change requires strong transformational leaders at the helm in order to champion bold and innovative solutions. Influential leaders who motivate followers to enable transformational visions are required in order to make real headway. Emotional intelligence is also a crucial aspect of effective leadership, in that, it is required to build strong and productive transformational teams.

According to Gill (2011), four dimensions tend to emerge in leadership thinking and research: the intellectual, the emotional, the spiritual, and the behavioral.  They propose that “effective leadership requires vision and a sense of mission, shared values, strategy, empowerment, and influence, motivation, and inspiration” (Gill, 2011, p. 64).  There have been many theories postulated and research conducted aimed at better understanding what traits and behaviors are effective in a leader. Indeed, this is a question that has always interested me and, although I have done my fair share of reading on the subject, I have equally learned about effective and ineffective leadership by watching those around me.

The “Great Man Theory,” which is aged merely by the gendered name, was an early leadership theory that suggested that one is born with specific traits that lend themselves to successful leadership. Empirical studies, however, “have not established a definite link between particular traits, or groups of traits, and effective leadership” (Stewart, 2006, p. 5). That is, there is no one set of innate distinguishing traits that automatically lead to effective leadership. Effective leaders can come in a variety of shapes, sizes, genders, and backgrounds. An effective leader can have a soft voice or a booming, loud voice. For those who are willing to work to improve upon their leadership behaviors and skills, these can develop over one’s lifetime through practice and learning, including learning from one’s mistakes!

Transactional and transformational leadership have been widely researched and it has been found that transformational leaders enjoy more success, in terms of committed and harder working followers and achieving higher profits and organization victories, than transactional leaders (Johnson, 2005, p. 232). Transactional leadership exchanges rewards, such as financial, recognition, and high scores on performance evaluations, for labor and obedience of followers. This type of leadership answers to the basic requirements of employees. Transformational leadership, however, goes beyond the basic needs of the followers and answers to the higher-level needs such as self-esteem, pride in one’s work and personal growth (Johnson, 2005). While transactional and transformational leadership are quite different, they are not necessarily mutually exclusive and, in fact, they can be complementary (Leithwood & Poplin, 1992). A transformational leader may use transactional tactics skillfully to benefit the organizational vision. The distinctions made between transformational and transactional leadership is often similar to the distinctions made between the roles of leadership and the roles of management (Stewart, 2006).

So, what is transformation leadership? Bass, Avolio, Jung and Berson (2003) described the four main characteristics of a transformational leader: 1) A transformational leader is the demonstration of idealized influence. They act as role models, their followers respect and admire them. They place their followers’ needs ahead of their own. 2) A transformational leader inspires motivation. They arouse team spirit in their followers, they are enthusiastic and optimistic and they develop a desired future vision. 3) A transformational leader is intellectually stimulating. They stimulate creativity and innovation within their followers. They encourage their followers to reframe situations to find new solutions to old problems. 4) A transformational leader gives individualized consideration. They act as coaches and mentors and they foster professional development and growth in their followers. They tailor their approach to their followers’ unique needs and desires.

Research has also shown that one’s level of emotional intelligence is more highly associated with effective leadership than IQ.  According to Sternberg (1996), “IQ accounts for as little as 4% of exceptional leadership, job performance and achievement; emotional intelligence (EQ) may account for over 90%” (as cited in Gill, 2011, p. 79). “Effective leaders ‘win people’s hearts.’ They use their personal power of emotional intelligence rather than position power (authority)” (Gill, 2011, p. 81). The dynamics between personal power (emotional intelligence) and positional power (authority) are interesting to consider. Certainly, one could assume that a combination of both personal and positional power would be desirable in order to optimize leadership effectiveness.

We, as humans, tend to be, in all different fields and contexts, resistant to change due to often long histories of operating under the context of status-quo.   Many changes are now required for us to keep up with the rapidly evolving society and work place.  Leaders with a vision for change that demonstrate the characteristics and behaviors of a transformational leader are required in order to overcome the all-too-common resistance to change, to rally and motivate personnel towards the desired future vision, and to hold the group momentum to achieve the stepping stones that lead towards the desired future vision. As Burns (1985) stated, “transformational leadership is more likely to… emerge in times of distress and change while transactional leadership is more likely to be observed in a well-ordered [and status-quo] society [or workplace]” (as cited in Bass et al., 2003, p. 208).  Bass (1985) went on to argue that “transformational leadership energizes groups to persist when conditions are unpredictable, difficult, and stressful” (as cited in Bass et al., 2003, p. 216).  

While it may be true that transactional leadership can be effective in a status-quo work environment, a vision for change and transformation requires a leader who will inspire followers to overcome their resistance to change, to work towards an organizational vision even during difficult periods and, generally speaking, do more than the minimum required to receive their pay cheque or positive yearly evaluation.  Evidence resulting from more than 100 empirical studies found that transformational leaders are more effective than transactional leaders and that their followers tend to be “more committed, form stronger bonds with colleagues, work harder and persist in the face of obstacles” (Johnson, 2005, p. 232).  The motivation of the followers, in this leadership model context, can actually seem to create an “increased capacity for achieving the mutual purpose” (Stewart, 2006, p. 9).  In other words, as in the phrase coined by Aristotle, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” As it becomes more common for staff shortages in our current context, maximizing the effectiveness of teams becomes another valuable by-product of good leadership. Transformational leadership with its resulting employee motivation is then required to shepherd organizations, in whatever particular change context, into a bright and changed vision of the future. 

In times of change, it is also important that leadership put forward a strategic vision and implementation plan to lead the institute in a direction which will enable the organization to thrive and remain relevant.  Bates (2000) makes the point that this strategic vision should come from the senior leaders and management. He warns that sometimes consulting too much can just water down the vision. “The danger… is that bold, innovative plans that will take an institution into new directions will be watered down and rendered meaningless by attempts to please everyone” (p. 34).  An interesting consideration, indeed. While consulting and learning from external stakeholders and lower levels is certainly valuable in shaping the vision, the strategic vision should, ultimately, be authored, communicated, and pushed forward by transformational leaders who have the personal behaviors and skills necessary to champion that vision and who will then go on to influence, motivate, intellectually stimulate, enable, and encourage their teams, making use of their emotional intelligence and personal power in order to advance the necessary steps towards achieving the ultimate future vision.

Are your organization’s leaders, as a collective, up to the task of effectively leading through required changes? Are you, as a leader, up to the task?

References

Bass, B. M., Jung, D. I., Avolio, B. J., & Berson, Y. (2003). Predicting Unit Performance by Assessing Transformational and Transactional Leadership. Journal Of Applied Psychology, 88(2), 207-218. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.88.2.207

Bates, A.W. (2000). Managing technological change: Strategies for college and university leadersSan Francisco:  Jossey-Bass.  Chapter 2, pages 36-58.

Burns, J.M. (1978). Leadership. NY: Harper & Row.

Gill, R. (2011). Redefining leadership: A new model. In R. Gill Theory and practice of leadership (pp.91-123). London: SAGE Publications.

Johnson, C. E. (2005). Meeting the ethical challenges of leadership: Casting light or shadow. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications. Retrieved from http://www.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-binaries/59330_Chapter_7.pdf

Leithwood, K. A., & Poplin, M. S. (1992). The move toward transformational leadership. Educational Leadership, (5), 8.

Stewart, J. (2006). Transformational Leadership: An Evolving Concept Examined through the Works of Burns, Bass, Avolio, and Leithwood. Canadian Journal Of Educational Administration And Policy, (54), 1-29.

Zigarelli, M. (2013, August 17). Ten Leadership Theories in Five Minutes.  Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XKUPDUDOBVo

Leadership Styles in the Military Context: Personal Reflections

During my career as a member of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), I have seen many different leaders and leadership styles. I have learned much through watching, what I would describe as, positive and negative examples of leadership. Effective leadership skills are important for enabling mission success, whether that be on a battlefield, in an office, or in an educational setting. Due to the contextual realities and challenges that DND/CAF has been facing of late (i.e. numerous allegations of misconduct at the highest rank levels), DND/CAF has become increasingly focused on the topic of leadership in terms of how we can develop good leaders. The recent 2022 Government of Canada federal budget, in fact, allocated funds to “strengthen leadership in the Canadian Armed Forces,” along with other culture change efforts, such as to “modernize the military justice system; bring into force the Declaration of Victims Rights as set out in the National Defence Act; undertake engagement and consultation on culture change; and enhance restorative services, including dispute resolution and coaching services” (Government of Canada, 2022).

In this personal reflection, and in relation to the CAF organization which has a particularly hierarchical leadership structure, I will consider three different pertinent areas in relation to leadership, including: 1) leadership approaches in the military context; 2) gender considerations for leadership evaluation; and, a somewhat uncomfortable, yet necessary, topic to discuss, 3) toxic leadership.

Leadership Approaches in the Military Context

In considering this topic, I realize that after 17 years as a CAF member, my views of leadership, and what constitutes good leadership, have been strongly influenced by the leadership that I have seen. It has seemed to me that those around me have tended to define good leadership in a rather narrow way, and that this is how we have evaluated leadership skills. Great leaders, I would surmise, in many of my colleagues’ minds, are loud, charismatic, and forceful.  They look like what a majority of Canadians would expect a military leader to look like. They have the ability to effectively “rally the troops.” Being a hierarchical organization, leadership tends to be very transactional and/or transformational. In reviewing literature on this subject, I pulled an older book off my shelf that has been there for many years, titled The Military Leadership Handbook (2008), published by the Canadian Defence Academy Press. Transactional leadership, it states, “occurs when the leader influence is controlled through rewards or disciplines for the follower, depending on the adequacy of the follower’s performance” (p. 345). Some may call this ‘old-school’ military leadership, but depending on the context, it may still have its place, especially in situations related to security and, perhaps, dealing with a consistently low-performer. Horn and Walker (2008) state that “generally … the most effective approach is the transformational one” (p.348) within the military context. A transformational leadership approach can be defined as, “the process whereby an individual engages with others and creates a connection that raises the level of motivation and morality in both the leader and the follower. Transformational leaders motivate others to do more than they thought possible. They set more challenging expectations and typically achieve higher performance” (p. 346). I’m sure that many would agree that this sounds like the kind of leader we enjoy and thrive working under.

Horn and Walker (2008) go on to discuss emergent leaders. These are, “leaders because of the way other group members respond to them…. When an individual is perceived by others as the most influential member of a group or organization, and regardless of the individual’s title, the person is exhibiting emergent leadership” (p. 347). Horn and Walker (2008) state that although “emergent leadership should always be recognized and utilized… position-based or assigned leaders must demonstrate constantly the effective and professional leadership that is not sidelined by emergent leadership” (p. 348). In other words, rank must still “pull rank” at the end of the day.

Clearly, their comments do ring true in the military context. In terms of “emergent leadership,” there are context-specific leadership considerations and requirements, such as the need to avoid potential insubordination within the chain of command and the need for due respect to position and rank-based leaders, perhaps especially in a war-time or security situation.  Emergent leadership, however, can be very instrumental in leading change at all levels regarding such things as the culture change efforts currently underway in DND/CAF.  When we speak of leadership, I now more fully realize that the specific situation must be considered, in order to determine which leadership approach would be most appropriate and effective within a specific context. Good leaders must have the ability to shift their approaches based on their current context, situation, and audience.

Gender Considerations for Leadership Evaluation

How we evaluate leadership skills is an important consideration as DND/CAF moves forward with efforts to develop a more inclusive environment with diverse representation in leadership positions. To explain one reason why building this diverse cadre of leaders is important, I share an excerpt from the Marie Deschamps report (2015), which was an external review into sexual misconduct and harassment in the CAF. In her report, she states that “there is an undeniable link between the existence of a hostile organizational culture that is disrespectful and demeaning to women, and the poor integration of women into the organization. Increasing the representation of women in the CAF, including in the highest positions of senior leadership, is therefore key to changing the culture of the organization.” As the female makeup of the CAF is only slightly higher that 15%, and the female representation in the General Officer/ Flag Officer cadre is only ~10% (by my own count), we do, indeed, have an under-representation in females. I believe that growth in the numbers of females in the highest of leadership levels could be increased by broadening our definition and appreciation of what a good leader looks like.  

If the organizational and historical culture tends to see a leader as a loud, tall, strong, and charismatic male, females may not, subjectively, be evaluated fairly on their leadership skills in their yearly evaluations.  Of course, female leaders can exhibit a wide range of leadership styles, taking advantage of their unique skills and abilities. It is worth considering, however, if a female happens to be soft-spoken but leads well through a high level of emotional intelligence, which has been shown to be a good predictor of effective leadership (Gill, 2011), would she be rated as highly as one who has the traits and behaviors traditionally held by male models of great leadership in the military. These biases run deep, and are often subconscious.

As we are currently having these types of discussions in the CAF/DND; as we have made a decision to remove gendered pronouns from our yearly evaluations; and as we are starting to look at promotion requirements through a Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GBA+) lens, I am confident that there is much to feel positive about in terms of our move towards greater organizational understanding in these areas. As is always the case, time will tell.

Toxic Leadership

An article was once shared with me on the topic of Toxic Leadership in the context of the United States Army.  I recommend reading this short article, linked here. It led me to consider how leadership can have such a significant effect, both positively or negatively, on troop morale, and on conduct and culture in the CAF.  Toxic Leadership, in the US Army Doctrine Publication (2012), has been defined as:

“a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance … Toxic leaders consistently use dysfunctional behaviors to deceive, intimidate, coerce, or unfairly punish others to get what they want for themselves. The negative leader completes short-term requirements by operating at the bottom of the continuum of commitment, where followers respond to the positional power of their leader to fulfill requests. This may achieve results in the short term, but ignores the other leader competency categories of leads and develops” (as cited in Zwerdling, 2014, para. 31). 

Unfortunately, as positive and effective as authentic transformational leadership can be in the military context, toxic leadership is on the opposite and negative side of the spectrum.  Many of us can likely pinpoint a time in our career, whether in or out of uniform, where we’ve experienced this type of leadership and witnessed its often-devastating effects on personnel. Based on the sharing of this definition and reflections of our own experiences, I hope we are better equipped to recognize this negative style of leadership and see it as a style to strongly avoid in ourselves and discourage in our colleagues. Even if toxic leadership can sometimes seem to attain quick wins towards organizational goals, one must question themselves. -At what cost? -At what cost to members’ mental and physical health? -At what cost to team cohesion? -At what cost to retention of personnel? And, ultimately, -At what cost to operational effectiveness in the long-term?

Future Considerations

Different approaches to leadership and how we will define effective leadership into the future are very important discussions that should be encouraged at all levels. Although leadership in the military will likely always be within a hierarchical structure, it must be understood that, as we further diversify, we must recognize that the most effective leaders may have different traits, abilities, and behaviors than were historically seen and evaluated against in the past. We must also understand that there can be no place for toxic leadership in a modern and successful military.

References:

Deschamps, M. (2015). External Review into Sexual Misconduct & Sexual Harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces. https://www.canada.ca/en/department-national-defence/corporate/reports-publications/sexual-misbehaviour/external-review-2015.html

Gill, R. (2011). Redefining leadership: A new model. In R. Gill’s Theory and practice of leadership (pp.91-123). London: SAGE Publications.

Government of Canada. (2022). 2022 Budget: Chapter 5: Canada`s Leadership in the World: Supporting Culture Change in the Canadian Armed Forces. https://budget.gc.ca/2022/report-rapport/chap5-en.html#m97

Walker, R. W., & Horn, B. (2008). The military leadership handbook. Kingston, ON: Canadian Defence Academy Press.

Zwerdling, D. (2014, January 6). Army takes on its own toxic leaders. Retrieved March 16, 2016, from http://www.npr.org/2014/01/06/259422776/army-takes-on-its-own-toxic-leaders