The recent surge in firings Navy-wide has revived the questions about what might be wrong in the leadership culture of the Navy. A recent study by Joris Lammers and Adam Galinsky should give us something to think about as we attempt to identify the problem and construct a solution. Their first conclusion appears to be that power does indeed corrupt:

In their first study, Dr Lammers and Dr Galinsky asked 61 university students to write about a moment in their past when they were in a position of high or low power. Previous research has established that this is an effective way to “prime” people into feeling as if they are currently in such a position. Each group (high power and low power) was then split into two further groups. Half were asked to rate, on a nine-point morality scale (with one being highly immoral and nine being highly moral), how objectionable it would be for other people to over-report travel expenses at work. The other half were asked to participate in a game of dice.

The dice players were told to roll two ten-sided dice (one for “tens” and one for “units”) in the privacy of an isolated cubicle, and report the results to a lab assistant. The number they rolled, which would be a value between one and 100 (two zeros), would determine the number of tickets that they would be given in a small lottery that was run at the end of the study.

In the case of the travel expenses—when the question hung on the behaviour of others—participants in the high-power group reckoned, on average, that over-reporting rated as a 5.8 on the nine-point scale. Low-power participants rated it 7.2. The powerful, in other words, claimed to favour the moral course. In the dice game, however, high-power participants reported, on average, that they had rolled 70 while low-power individuals reported an average 59. Though the low-power people were probably cheating a bit (the expected average score would be 50), the high-power volunteers were undoubtedly cheating—perhaps taking the term “high roller” rather too literally.

Taken together, these results do indeed suggest that power tends to corrupt and to promote a hypocritical tendency to hold other people to a higher standard than oneself.

Fortunately, Drs. Lammers and Galinsky’s second conclusion suggests a route to remedy:

Half of 105 participants were asked to write about a past experience in which they had legitimately been given a role of high or low power. The others were asked to write about an experience of high or low power where they did not feel their power (or lack of it) was legitimate. All of the volunteers were then asked to rate how immoral it would be for someone to take an abandoned bicycle rather than report the bicycle to the police. They were also asked, if they were in real need of a bicycle, how likely they would be to take it themselves and not report it.

The “powerful” who had been primed to believe they were entitled to their power readily engaged in acts of moral hypocrisy.

In short, it would seem the Navy should integrate into its regular leadership training some way of identifying those with a sense of entitlement and bring them back to earth before it causes problem on the deckplates.




Posted by Chris van Avery in Uncategorized


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  • Total

    Uh, I’d be careful about that statistical analysis (unless you’re not reporting it fully). What are the statistical odds of 30 people rolling an average of 70, rather than 50? I bet it’s small but not zero.

    (ie the stats they’re basing things on could be an anomaly)

  • SwitchBlade

    “on a nine-point morality scale (with one being highly immoral and nine being highly moral), how objectionable it would be for other people to over-report travel expenses at work.”

    “high-power group reckoned, on average, that over-reporting rated as a 5.8 on the nine-point scale. Low-power participants rated it 7.2. The powerful, in other words, claimed to favour the moral course.”

    Maybe not understanding the question is a problem. I consider the score closest to 9 to be the more moral judgment. I would rank it a 9, there isn’t a reason to cheat on travel expenses and I didn’t do it. Based on my interpretation, the low-power participants are the more moral.

  • http://www.navycaptain-therealnavy.blogspot.com Mike Lambert

    If the Navy spent as much time and energy on moral, ethical and intellectual fitness as it did physical fitness, all of our Sailors would be better off.

  • Prof Gene

    Mike Lambert has a great point. If the Navy even spent a fraction of the time and energy on professional ethics and standards of conduct as it does on physical fitness, the Fleet and our Sailors would be much the better for it.

    That said, ethics training & education in the Navy belongs to the IG, so it is consistently limited to standards of conduct issues (like travel expenses and appropriate use of government IT systems). The IG’s mission does not encompass either character development (an unfunded responsibility of the Center for Personal & Professional Development) or professional military ethics (use of force, civil-military relations, use/abuse of power). Students at the Naval War College consistently report that NWC ethics events are their first education/training in professional ethics since they were commissioned. No Navy admiral has responsibility for professional military ethics; your Navy Ethos wallet card is pretty much your sole guidance in these matters…

  • RickWilmes

    I agree that intellectual and ethical development for our leaders in the Navy is of utmost importance. This is a philosophical issue that if not corrected will continue to get worse. The problems concerning ethics and bad conduct did not develop overnight but are logical consequences of a failed ethics that has been in practice for decades.

    Concerning intellectual development the area of study and focus should be on epistemology. And the first questions that need to be asked and understood are

    How does man acquire knowledge? On the most fundamental level the answer becomes a choice between faith and reason.

    Concerning ethics the first question that needs to be asked is

    Why does man need a code of values?

    In order for ethics to become just as important as physical fitness this question needs to be properly answered and understood by those individuals who are advocating a higher standard of ethics for our leaders.

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    I would be interested to know how much instruction in the UCMJ articles which specifically refer to the misconduct of officers is currently given to officer candidates, how much instruction in the Hague Convention and Geneva Accords is given to officers as part of their “warfare specialty qualification”, and how much instruction is given in the various Qualification for Command and PCO and PXO programs on the frequent and repetitive violations of the UCMJ committed by XO’s and officers in command.

    Also of interest would be the NCIS and Naval Legal Center “hardy perennials” of investigated and prosecuted violations by officers with scrambled eggs on the their hat.

    Just researching and publishing the statistics of officers “retired in lieu of disciplinary action or court martial” might serve the same good purpose as hanging Admiral Byng “to encourage the rest”. Particularly if done every single quarter in the Navy Times.

    The thicket of Command Master Chiefs which has grown up with so little good effect on the good order, discipline and efficiencky of enlisted personnel in the last thirty years has had more that its fair share of bad actors, too. Pruning shears seem to be banned, but the junior enlisted personnel would be endlessly amused if dtailed statistics and VERY detailed case studies (redacted to protect the red faces of the guilty, of course) were published quarterly in Navy Times. So morale would go up, at least.

    The joy d’vive of little tin gods would drop, but is that entirely a bad thing?

    Sunlight remains the best disinfectant.

  • Byron

    Grandpa, we’re SO going to have to sit down and kill a couple of ice cold pitchers of PBR!

  • RickWilmes

    Using pruning shears to cut off dead branches on an oak tree that is rotten at it’s core will not save the tree.  The samething can be said for posting misconduct in the Navy Times.

    Postings in the Navy Times assumes two things 

    1.  Individuals will take the time to read the postings.

    2.  Public disgrace is a motivator.

    Based  on my experience, high quality ethical/moral individuals ignore both.  What is needed is an ethics that identifies virtues in action not what not to do.

  • Prof Gene

    I’m all for sunlight in these matters, and I think there would be some value in what Grandpa is suggesting, but our Navy leader development is far too focused on what not to do. Our case studies are generally about leadership failure rather than success and our ethics development is almost always about what not to do rather than what to do. “First do no harm” is inadequate as a leadership model. The ethics course at USNA (which is echoed in ROTC) is an attempt to build a positive foundation (rather than just studying failure) in this area and to address the big questions that RickWilmes proposes – the problem, of course, is that there is no follow-up on this across the next two or three decades of an officer’s career (except for that Navy Ethos wallet card, of course).

    The Naval War College is now offering VADM Stockdale’s course “Foundations of Moral Obligation” all three trimesters, but that reaches only about 45 students a year, and only about half of those are Navy. The Command Leadership School is routinely tasked to make bad CO behavior go away by telling prospective CO’s in the two-week PCO course to not engage in bad behavior. I would suggest that most all CO’s fired for gross leadership malpractice or serious character deficiency did not actually believe they were doing the right thing (though they likely believed they would not get caught or would not be held accountable).

    Building and regularly reinforcing a positive foundation of strong character, highly developed professional military ethics and superior leadership skills wouldn’t cost a lot, but it still wouldn’t be free. Our organizational history says that we will continue to impose some cost-free training to tell people not to do the wrong thing – that fits on PowerPoint slides and makes it easy to declare victory and move on. We should aim higher.

  • RickWilmes

    Prof Gene brings up some good points and I have read Joseph Brennan’s book, “Foundations of Moral Obligation: A Practical Guide to Ethics and Morality” which is based on the Stockdale course.

    One of the problems, dating back to Aristotle, is how the study of ethics is approached.  Aristotle looked at how the wise and good men lived and developed his ethics by saying do what the good men of Athens do and you will live a virtuos life.

    Grandpa Bluewater’s approach looks at the opposite.  In essence, he is saying do not do what these people have done.

    Stockdale was influenced by Epictetus, a Stoic.  The Stoic approach to ethics might be a worthy subject to discuss on this blog.

    Incidentally, Brennan claims that there are two approaches to studying ethics, Kant vs. Aristotle. (see p. 87 in Foundations of Moral Obligation)

    Is this claim true?

    I offer the following quote and link that may help answer that question.

    “In spite of all their irrationalities, inconsistencies, hypocrisies and evasions, the majority of men will not act, in major issues, without a sense of being morally right and will not oppose the morality they have accepted. They will break it, they will cheat on it, but they will not oppose it; and when they break it, they take the blame on themselves. The power of morality is the greatest of all intellectual powers—and mankind’s tragedy lies in the fact that the vicious moral code men have accepted destroys them by means of the best within them.”

    http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/morality.html

  • Prof Gene

    The Navy’s commitment to Stoic philosophy has developed with little comment and less debate. VADM Stockdale studied some philosophy while getting an MA in International Relations at Stanford in the mid-60′s. He left there with an abiding affection for the work of Epictetus and his book “Enchiridion” and later credited the Stoic philosophy of Epictetus for having sustained him through his POW experience (for which he was awarded the MOH, of course).

    Later, as President of the Naval War College, VADM Stockdale created a course with the philosopher Joe Brennan called “Foundations of Moral Obligation” which examines the reasons why we are compelled to act in virtuous ways and finishes with a close look at the Stoics. That course is still taught at NWC, and it was used as a model for crafting a core Ethics course for the Naval Academy in the mid-90′s. The USNA course, which the last decade of USNA grads completed, concludes with a close look at VADM Stockdale as a model of moral leadership and Stoic philosophy as his principal moral inspiration. The Ethics Center at USNA is named for VADM Stockdale and distributes his books and speeches, which are framed by Stoic thought. The PG school at Monterey has recently begun teaching some ethics by borrowing professors from USNA and NWC – instructors who teach courses that end by praising the Stoics. And so, to the degree that Navy ethics education is connected to any school of thought, we are all Stoics…

    This is not necessarily bad. VADM Stockdale gives us a heroic model, and the Stoic perspective includes a high commitment to “sucking it up” and making the very best of what you have, so it can be argued that overall this is a pretty good fit for the Navy. Along the way, we are also teaching midshipmen and officers that Kant’s ethics are duty-based and Aristotle’s ethics are virtue-based (meaning, I suppose, that we get the Code of Conduct from Kant and the Core Values from Aristotle, while the Navy Ethos might come from Epictetus…).

    This certainly seems like an area that is ripe for serious discussion.

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