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The Ethical Warrior: Leadership from the bottom up

How do you adapt and implement the USMC “Ethical Warrior” concept when there is a lack of ethics at the top?

Previous articles on the possible adaptation of the United States Marine Corps Ethical Warrior concept for law enforcement have generated many interesting and supportive comments. It appears that the term “Ethical Warrior” strikes a chord with many who believe there should be a clarified code of ethics for protector professionals.

There have also been some questions on how to adapt, and then implement, such a program — especially in environments where there is a lack of ethics at the leadership level. This is a valid concern. The law enforcement profession requires extraordinary devotion, sacrifice, and courage. Those chosen to supervise others in this noble field need a firm foundation of ethical leadership worthy of those they lead. Yet, lack of effective leadership is a common complaint across the law enforcement spectrum. The topic of ethics is rarely discussed in the context of leadership, and even less well understood. Is there something that an individual officer can do to induce more ethical leadership from above?

The following three step process is one possible answer.

1. Calibrate your moral compass by clarifying and activating your own ethical understanding
2. Become an “Ethical Warrior” by honestly applying your ethical foundation to all the professional decisions within your power
3. Act as if your boss is already committed to steps one and two

The first two steps involve decisions you can make for yourself. The critical third step is a way that you can help influence your boss to lead from a more ethical perspective.

Step One: Calibrate the Moral Compass
Lifetimes can be devoted to a thorough understanding of morals, values and ethics. For the purpose of this article, the discussion will be confined to the clarification and activation of those principles necessary to be an “Ethical Warrior” or an “ethical protector.” Whichever term is preferred, we are referring to someone whose fundamental perspective is that of a protector of life. Whose life? Self and others. Which others? All others. For the law enforcement officer, this includes, of course, the lives of the citizens they serve — but also the lives of criminals, if possible. This is more than doing what is legally correct by protecting those under arrest or serving a sentence. It is an ability — and commitment — to look through people’s relative behavior — legal or illegal — and see the intrinsic worth of all life beneath that behavior; and respect it. This is important for two reasons:

1. it is the logical thing to do
2. it is the psychologically healthy way to act

Life is a universal value: we all have it, or we would not be alive. It defines our human equality (read the Hunting Story if you have not yet done so). Therefore, it is logical to treat everyone as an equal from that perspective — their life value — even if their behavior does not necessarily meet acceptable standards In fact, the ability to separate the value of life from the value of behavior – respecting the former while appropriately addressing the latter — is critical in resolving conflict.

Second, respect for human equality is psychologically safer for the protector professional. Constant exposure to illegal and immoral behavior tempts us to de-humanize anyone not perceived to be in our “in-group.” This “us-them” mentality often exists, not only between cops and criminals, but between cops and citizens. It is now well established that the dehumanizing of “outsiders” is a major cause of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and burn out .

Step Two: Become an Ethical Warrior by Honestly Applying Your Ethical Foundation
The Universal Life Value serves to calibrate the moral compass when applied to all the other “relative” values. For example, the value of courage is moral when a policeman rescues a passenger from a burning vehicle, and immoral when a terrorist flies a plane into a building. Both acts require courage, but only the first is moral because it serves to protect life. Ethics are moral values in action. It is moral to understand that it is wrong to attack an innocent person; it is ethical to stop the attacker. Law enforcement officers conduct thousands of such ethical acts every day. These actions are often thought of as, “just doing my job,” but are actually very powerful expressions of ethical warriorship.

Enhance your effectiveness — and enhance your life – by playing the part of the Ethical Warrior. Show a consistent and sincere respect for everyone that you encounter — citizens and suspects. Have the guts to be friendly and nice to every person you meet, get out of the vehicle, take off the sunglasses — as Marines have been directed to do in their counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan — and connect with your constituency. It is a little harder, maybe even a little more dangerous at times, but it is a better life because everywhere you go, people are safer because you are there.

Step Three: Act as if Your Boss is Already Committed to Steps One and Two
Most law enforcement professionals have an initial positive reaction to the Ethical Warrior message. However, the compliments are often followed by, “I have to function in the real world. My boss only cares about his/her career, covering his/her rear-end, and looking good for his/her boss. I try to do the right thing, but what can I do if my ethics conflict with his/her priorities?” A good question, but not one confined just to the front line officer. Managers at all levels express similar frustration about their bosses. Is there a way to break through this seemingly universal obstacle?

One way is to act as if my boss is an Ethical Warrior, too. This seems simplistic and naive, but it is a potentially powerful technique. The idea of “act as if” is a staple of the self-help vocabulary. Act as if you are confident, rich, or attractive and people will start treating you like the person you want to be. Once people perceive you differently, you might start to acquire the traits you most desire. This is an interesting theory, but what if we apply the same technique to others instead of ourselves? What if we apply this technique to ethical leadership instead of fame and fortune?

Act as if your boss is operating from the same Ethical Warrior premise, and frame your conversation along those lines when confronted with a potential conflict. For example, you may anticipate that your boss expects you to exaggerate certain statistical accomplishments in order to exceed organizational goals. Honesty in law enforcement reporting is a moral value because it contributes to an accurate assessment that facilitates effective policing and protects lives. Rather than ignoring the problem, or just complaining to your peers, have a conversation with your boss that assumes a common ethical understanding. One approach would be, “I know you want these statistics reported honestly, and that our integrity matters more than any single report, so I’ll be reporting numbers a little lower than you expected.” You may have a boss who will tell you he/she doesn’t care about honesty or integrity, but one hopes that would be a very rare occurrence in law enforcement. It is more likely that framing the conversation in ethical terms will help clarify and activate these values for your boss.

You may be hesitant to try the bottom-up “as if” technique out of concern that you’ll be perceived as unrealistic, self righteous or weak. Start small. Identify smaller issues that you can use to form the basis of your reputation as an Ethical Warrior. These timeless values have a power of their own that can be a very effective ally. You will likely find that your boss is trying hard to be ethical within the context of the unique pressures of his/her position. Your spoken confidence that they will make the ethical choice may be just what they need to reinforce their resolve. Of course, you will only be able to pull this off if you are genuinely committed to being an ethical warrior. But then, you are already a very ethical law enforcement officer, aren’t you?

Mr. Hoban and Mr. Gourlie, along with a team of top law enforcement, military and martial arts conflict resolution specialists, will be offering a three day Conflict Resolution Skills — Level I RGI certification program for protector professionals covering ethics, communication skills, and physical skills Sept. 10-12, 2010 in New Jersey. For additional information, click here.

Jack E. Hoban is president of Resolution Group International, subject matter expert for Combatives and Warrior Ethics for the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program, and trains police officers in de-escalation skills.

Bruce J. Gourlie is a former U.S. Army infantry officer, a retired FBI Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge for Intelligence and currently the director of security in a large healthcare system.

Correspondence can be sent to both authors by emailing Hoban & Gourlie.