Staying away from ethical cliffs

  • Published
  • By Maj. Darin Fawcett
  • 341st Missile Wing Legal Office
I remember hearing a story when I was a boy that went something like this - A man was looking to hire a wagon team that could haul his goods through steep mountain cliffs. He interviewed three different drivers.  The first said he could drive the wagon within one foot of the road's edge.  The second said he could do it within six inches.  The third man said he didn't know how close he could get, but that he would stay as far from the edge as possible.  The third man got the job.

This is how we should approach ethical dilemmas in our personal and professional lives.  If we are faced with a decision, and it is potentially unethical to pursue a certain path, why risk it?  Is choosing the path that borders on being unethical worth the price?  The answer is no.  It is not worth our careers.  It is not worth compromising our integrity, honor or reputation.  Additionally, we owe it to our superiors, our colleagues, and the nation to stay as far as possible from ethical cliffs. 

Air Force Instruction 1-1, "Air Force Standards," paragraph 2.3. states in part, "Your code of ethics must be such that your behavior and motives do not create even the appearance of impropriety.  Your commitment to integrity will lead the way for others to follow." 

We that wear the cloth of the nation are held to a higher standard, and that is how it should be. According to a recent Harris Poll, military officers are the second most prestigious occupation in the United States.  We are given the respect and trust of the nation.  Our actions, whether in or out of uniform, impact the integrity of the Air Force.

Sometimes military leaders are faced with choices that are fairly black and white, choices where there is a clear right and wrong.  But I believe the more common and more difficult ethical dilemmas military leaders face do not involve clear lines of right and wrong, or a nefarious intent to do something bad or intentionally wrong.  The more common and difficult ethical dilemmas often involve good people working towards a good cause.  This could be a relatively unimportant matter, with rules and regulations that may seem silly or unimportant.  But those rules and regulations typically serve an important purpose.

If we pick and choose which rules and regulations we are going to follow with the issues that are relatively unimportant, what will we do when faced with an issue of more importance, or significant importance?  And what kind of example are we setting for our colleagues and subordinates who see us disregarding rules or regulations we think are unimportant, or we simply don't like?

We shouldn't try to force a square peg into a round hole.  That doesn't mean that as leaders, we shouldn't be creative and try to find a way to "yes" if it is a good cause, but sometimes the peg just doesn't fit.  Sometimes the best answer is "no."  Sometimes the best answer is to trim the edges off the square peg until it fits, that is, change the plans or approach to legitimately fit within the rules and regulations. 

If we stay far away from ethical cliffs, we will be more effective leaders, our fellow Airmen will respect and trust us, we will protect those in our chain of command, and we will maintain our integrity and the trust the nation.

Information from the Harris Poll was taken from
icleId/1490/ctl/ReadCustom%20Default/Default.aspx for this article.