Year of Leadership: A closer look at core values

  • Published
  • By Maj. Brad Brainard
  • 741st Missile Security Forces Squadron commander
Integrity, service and excellence. As Airmen and leaders, these terms represent the underlying principles of right and wrong we profess to apply in all of our decisions. 

Fundamentally, the core values are the basic foundation of how we go about our lives. Simply put, they are the ethical practices we use every day in everything we do.
I have never met another Air Force member who did not know the definition of the core values when asked ... but I've encountered Air Force personnel who've seemingly forgotten what they mean, or worse, ignored them. I've often contemplated why people who appear to understand the core values in concept, fail to achieve their intent in practice. 

In his book, "Hammer-Proof," Doctor Jeffrey Zink examines this contradiction of why people, who seemingly understand moral values, make poor choices in their ethical decisions. He asserts they often just don't think about their actions and discount the consequences that result with others and their organizations. He cautions even the smallest breech of core values, if repeated, can slowly chip away at our moral fiber and personal reputation, often leading to actions which ultimately end careers or cause harm to others. "Their honesty shows us something about them and about us," Dr. Zink said. "They aren't -- and we aren't -- bad people. We're basically good people who sometimes make bad ethical choices." 

So, the question is, how do we avoid making bad choices? We must think, talk and act when it comes to ethical decisions, according to Dr. Zink. Before acting, do we consider the core values and the outcome of ignoring them? For example, consider this: "Could you accept the results of your actions if you were on the receiving end?" Would you ask advice when other issues conflict and cloud your judgment, and then think hard about the consequences of a lapse of integrity, excellence or selflessness? Or would you think, would I like it, what's in it for me or why does it even matter? 

The core values do matter as they are timeless elements of truth which have very real implications to the foundational beliefs, decision-making and moral climate of our service. They are not vague concepts or mottos to be repeated in the glib hope, that by repetition, they will catch on. They are the ethical "glue" that holds an organization together over time and they are the tenets or guiding principles of what Americans expect in an honorable and principled military service. 

Gen. Ronald Fogleman once described the core values as "beacons vectoring us back towards the path of professional conduct ... allowing us to create a climate of ethical commitment." Former Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall, also said "Core values make the military what it is; without them, we cannot succeed. They are the values that instill confidence, earn lasting respect and create willing followers. They are the values that anchor resolve in the most difficult situations. They are the values that buttress mental and physical courage when we enter combat. In essence, they are the three pillars of professionalism that provide the foundation for military leadership at every level." 

General Fogleman stated exactly why the core values were imperative to Airmen: "We're entrusted with the security of our nation. The tools of our trade are lethal, and we engage in operations that involve risk to human life and untold national treasures. Because of what we do, our standards must be higher than those of society at large. The American public expects it of us and properly so. In the end, we earn the respect and trust of the American people because of the integrity we demonstrate." 

Ultimately, as leaders rebuilding the nuclear enterprise, we must foster an environment of trust and commitment to our core values. The awesome responsibility of the nuclear mission requires absolute trust and commitment to achieving perfection in our profession of arms. By adhering to the core values we remain committed to securing the nation's trust in protecting the most powerful and respected air, space and cyberspace force.