Ethics Training to Address Senior Military Officers’ Bad Behavior? Not so Fast!

The New York Times reports that Defense Secretary Panetta has ordered a review of ethics training, in light of recent scandals involving CIA Director Petraeus and others. Officers have been investigated or fired for behaviors including “sexual improprieties, sexual violence, malfeasance, or poor judgment.”


What’s wrong with the training solution?

The leap to ethics training as a solution reflects a common organizational bias towards training as the solution to all problems. And, as with most situations where this bias exists, training isn’t likely to make much of a dent in the problem.  The training solution is predicted on invalid assumptions:

–       that the officers don’t have a clear set of ethical principles and need to be taught them, and

–       that the decisions about what’s ethical and not ethical in these circumstances are complicated, and require skill and knowledge to judge.


What is really driving the unethical behaviors?

To design an effective solution, Panetta and his change agents need to understand the drivers of senior officers’ misbehavior. They must look at the overwhelming effect of high position, of almost-absolute power, on these officers’ lives and world views.  Here are some themes drawn from recent news coverage:

–       Big egos.   Petraeus had a famously large ego, according to Fred Kaplan in the National Post. He was known for cultivating acolytes, and Paula Broadwell’s fawning played right to this. In another article on, Kaplan describes how Petraeus’ mentors taught him that “a great leader must weave a myth about himself.” He may have come to believe his own myth.

–       Astounding perks, pampering, and adulation.   In the Washington Post, Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Greg Jaffe describe how America’s four-star generals live like pampered rock stars, with perks including “executive jets, palatial homes, drivers, security guards and aides to carry their bags, press their uniforms.” They have troops to tend their property, personal chefs, and valets.

–       Illusion of no consequences for bad behavior.   As Kaplan states, Petraeus’ notable accomplishments as a general “may have instilled a growing sense that he could make his own rules, that he could get away with almost anything – even something that no one thought he would ever be tempted to try.”  To pull a notable example from a recent non-military scandal, former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner disregarded the likelihood that his bad behavior would be discovered.


What effect would this have on you? People suck up to you. You get lots of goodies. You feel omnipotent, powerful, and important. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, “There is something about a sense of entitlement and of having great power that skews people’s judgment.”


The destructive effects of success

The effects of success on individuals’ moral compass were outlined 20 years ago by the researchers Dean Ludwig and Clinton Longenecker in an article called “The Bathsheba Syndrome: The Ethical Failure of Successful Leaders.” They argue that:

–       The ethical lapses of Petraeus, General John Allen, and Weiner are not subtle. They are gross violations which the perpetrators know are wrong as they are doing them, which they know would get them into trouble if caught, and which they believe they have the power to conceal.

–       The perpetrators are often people who, for most of their careers, demonstrated strong principles and built careers based on service.


These researchers go on to conclude that the leaders chose willingly to abandon their personal principles, directly as a result of their success.  Specifically, success has the following effects:

–       It allows leaders to become complacent and lose focus on doing the activities that are critical to their role.

–       It gives them special access to information, people, and things.

–       It gives them control over organizational resources.

–       It leads them to believe they can manipulate or control outcomes.


Adding to these factors is the fact that executives in very elevated positions are insulated from critical feedback.  Nobody around these leaders is about to take the risk of confronting them about their bad behavior or ethical lapses.


What would a sustainable solution look like?

Looking at things from this perspective, solving the ethics problem for senior officers would require a few elements:

–       build awareness on the part of senior leaders about how power can lead to the abandonment of values and principles,

–       foster senior leader reflection about the real, unacknowledged incentives and rewards (e.g. temptations) in their world, and the ways in which their real behavior might diverge from their espoused values, and

–       encourage senior leaders to surround themselves with a leadership team that will challenge them.


Panetta may not want to hear that a true solution will be more complicated than simply sheep-dipping his leaders in training, but, if he wants things to be different, he will need to face that reality.

View Joan Kofodimos's LinkedIn profileView Joan Kofodimos’s profile

About Joan