An Open Letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta Regarding Joint Chiefs of Staff Ethics Training

This is an open memorandum I have forwarded to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Key points apply to all senior leaders committed to delivering effective ethics training to top level executives and others who serve in key positions.

Secretary Panetta:

In light of recent events, your Nov. 15 memorandum directs the Joint Chiefs of Staff to conduct an initial review of ethics training and prepare a report for President Obama by Dec. 1, 2012, including recommendations on to how to “better foster a culture of value-based decision making and stewardship among senior general and flag officers and their staffs.” Having worked in this area for more than 30 years, I respectfully offer both some perspective and advice for the joint chiefs’ and your consideration.

I’m willing to bet that the content of Defense Department courses is not the problem. The real challenge is to determine what more the military can do through the programs’ design and subsequent reinforcement to make sure that key lessons are absorbed, retained, applied and sustained by senior and flag officers. Here are seven questions that the joint chiefs can use to evaluate whether the Defense Department’s ethics training can actually help senior officers and flag officers create a more ethical workplace whose key principles are embedded in day-to-day service culture

1. Are all the consequences of improper conduct clearly explained? As you noted, “any behavior that negatively impacts our ability to perform that mission is unacceptable.” This principle must be embedded in training. Senior leaders need to see how what they view as private behavior has a damaging impact on others and mission effectiveness. Otherwise, they may violate standards assuming what they do affects them and no one else. Abundant evidence shows how affairs and other ethical violations drain attention and resources that would be better spent on mission accomplishment.

2. Does DoD’s training focus on gray areas or just the black-and-white? Obviously, some learning needs to focus on conduct that clearly runs afoul of laws or regulations. But the large gray areas of legality and ethics can cause serious problems and distractions. This point is often overlooked in traditional training, which does not consider how “borderline” or imprudent conduct can harm mission effectiveness, even if legal. Does Defense Department ethics training help senior officers and flag officers explore the boundaries between actions that are “legally permissible” and those that are “neither advisable nor wise” and encourage them to get help on questions they cannot answer?

3. Are Defense Department courses designed to train ethicists or soldiers? A limited number of short, clear messages that address specific behaviors and explain how to get help and handle ambiguous situations will stay with senior leaders far longer than detailed explorations of the intricacies of obscure regulations. The more focused, clear and limited the lessons the more likely they will be to be remembered and applied.

4. Is the Defense Department training approach appropriate for senior leaders? My observation is that senior leaders are not inclined to pay attention to training on topics like ethics that are delivered solely via online sessions. Too often, they’ll click through content rather than concentrate. Training on ethical behavior should be presented in a format that forces them to discuss problems, ask questions, listen to peers, and actively engage with their colleagues. No e-learning program can properly highlight the urgency of key lessons, or directly address participant push back. A lecture and slide-by-slide PowerPoint won’t do that, either.

5. Are Defense Department trainers professionally respected by participants? Senior leaders sit on a high perch. They will only listen to others they see as colleagues, superiors, or experts with a level of expertise in their area that is on a par with theirs. Do Defense Department instructors command respect through rank or content knowledge? If not, they will be dismissed and the impact of their messages, diminished.

6. Do senior leaders play an active role in the training, reinforcement, and modeling of appropriate behavior? While the last consideration listed, this is the most important. Ethics cannot be treated as a one-time or annual event or a topic revisited only when the next crisis erupts. Similarly, training can’t be seen as a staff or lower-level responsibility, or something that can be dismissed as soon as the class ends. Here are a few key points that extend beyond the Defense Department’s actual training. They are based on the fact that most key lessons are learned and applied after class and on the job. Senior leaders must be involved in keeping key messages alive after classes end.

7. Do all senior leaders go through the training themselves, ideally before their direct reports?

  • Do they explain its importance before classes start and how it relates to mission effectiveness?
  • After training, do the Defense Department senior leaders address key topics regularly in discussions and meetings with their direct reports?
  • Do leaders model important behaviors, talk about them, speak up when they see problems arising, and hold themselves and others accountable for rule violations?
  • Do the rules apply to everyone, including senior officers and flag officers? Will the Defense Department really deal with anyone abusing ethical standards? If leaders fail to follow what they are taught and hold others accountable, the messages they send will be that ethical behavior is not important.

Along with millions of others, I have the greatest respect and appreciation for our military and its commitment to our nation’s defense and security. With senior leadership commitment supported by proper training, the principles of your memorandum can be readily met.

With kindest regards,

Stephen M. Paskoff, Esq.

President and CEO

ELI Inc.