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Avoiding tsunamis of malfeasance

Col. E. John Teichert Official Photo

11th Wing and Joint Base Andrews commander

JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. -- In a September 2015 New Republic article, ethicist Edward Queen rails against Volkswagen for its recent “unmistakable malfeasance.” He describes their actions in the following way: “This was an intentionally designed and executed violation of the law in both its letter and its spirit. It also was an ethical violation of the highest level.”

Interestingly, Dr. Queen traces the root cause of VW’s scandal back to a business school culture where “far too much of the world’s corporate leadership is driven by moral midgets who have been educated far beyond their capacities for good judgment.” These strong words and the corresponding shameful corporate moral lapses stem from one primary and repeated business school lesson according to Dr. Queen: “the only duty of a corporation is return on investment.” He contends that a focus on short-term greed and an attitude of immediate gratification are to blame for these substantial problems. In Dr. Queen’s mind, this culture has been “drilled into generations of business school graduates” driving “tsunamis of corporate malfeasance.” How shameful!

But wait … is it possible that military leaders are following the same path? Every time we encourage short-term success without regard to long-term consequences, we are effectively saying “the only duty of our corporation is return on investment.” Every time we praise, reward, or promote those whose immediate accomplishments are magnificent despite creating long-term organizational sustainability problems, we are effectively saying “the only duty of our corporation is return on investment.” Every time we create a myopic strategy that solves immediate problems without due regard to enduring results, we are effectively saying “the only duty of our corporation is return on investment.”

Even leaders who focus on the mission can fall in to the trap of creating short-term mission successes to the detriment of long-term sustainability. They too can exclaim by their words and their actions that “the only duty of our corporation is return on investment.” In reality, the mission is typically better served by equipping, encouraging, challenging, and compelling (and correcting) the people who are actually the core of long-term mission success while balancing a mission perspective. There is nothing wrong with a mission focus as long as it is the long-term mission that is considered beyond the tenures of the current leadership team.

May American military leaders never be labeled “moral midgets” and may we never play a role in creating “tsunamis of malfeasance.” Encouraging a longer-term perspective that rewards, promotes, and emphasizes sustainable performance and long-term mission success is an important lesson that should be drilled into military professionals.