A friend and business partner of mine, RADM (ret) Hamlin Tallent (callsign “Ham”, though I have never been able to figure out why), was at my house last weekend recounting a story of leadership that resonated with me. Ham organized a training program for the U.S. Navy on ethics, based upon the Harvard Business School Case Method of Instruction and intended to reduce the number of commanding officers and other senior leaders being fired for ethics violations (28 in 2010, more by an order of magnitude than those lost in accidents or combat). Ham’s success with this program has been largely due to his personal presence and reputation in the Navy.
Ham was a Naval Flight Officer (NFO, think “Goose” in Top Gun). At one point in his career he was an F-14 squadron CO on an aircraft carrier. Ham’s squadron and another squadron were in competition for a Battle “E” award, and one of the primary criteria was the number of hours flown by squadron members. Ham and his squadron felt that they should be on the lead for this competition since they had 40+ more sorties flown than the other squadron, but the other squadron consistently managed to log more flight hours. Ham’s pilots came to him and laid it out for him – the other squadron was lying about their flight hours and having a low level admin person add a little bit to every log entry.
Ham’s pilots came to him again and said that there was no way that they would win the competition even though they were busting their butts, troop morale was at an all time low, and Ham as the skipper had to do “something.” Against all of his judgement, Ham said that he would allow the pilots to inflate their log entries.
That night, Ham couldn’t sleep, he had nightmare after nightmare of being caught cheating on a test, etc. The next morning, Ham called his troops in and said that he would not allow them to cheat on their logs. His next statement was telling “I know it’s wrong, you know it’s wrong, we aren’t going to do that.” The pilots agreed.
It would be a great Hollywood ending to say that despite the other squadron cheating the good guys still persevered through hard work and won the competition. They didn’t, the cheating advantage was too great to overcome. Ham, tellingly, called the other CO to congratulate him on the win and being the “Best man, a class act.”
The epilogue to this story is that almost every pilot in the other squadron got out of the Navy early in their career to pursue other opportunities. Almost every pilot in Ham’s squadron stayed in the Navy and had highly successful careers. Good leaders beget good leaders, and under Ham’s influence a large number of Navy leaders of whom the nation can be proud were groomed.
It can be hard to do the right thing when no one is watching and doing the wrong thing will get you short term gain. It is even harder to do the right thing when everyone is watching and encouraging you to do the wrong thing. A real leader does the right thing when no one wants them to.