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Other Voices: Ethical leadership required

Other Voices
Joe D’Andrea

In May 1920, 100 years ago, Rear Admiral Henry B. Wilson, superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy gave his commencement speech to the graduating midshipmen.

Remember that by Dec. 7, 1941 many of these same midshipmen would be in their 21st year of a Navy career, and in senior leadership positions at the time of our entry into World War II.

Included in that commencement speech was this ethical advice: “Intellect alone is not enough to make a good leader, most important is character, the qualities of devotion to duty, of loyalty to a cause, of capacity to resist criticism and to do the right thing regardless of personal consequences.”

Stop, go back and reread that line, let it sink in on a personal level, then on a national level, relative to our current leadership in Washington.

On a personal level, ask yourself could I really do the right thing regardless of personal consequences? That’s a tall order, considering what those consequences might be. That means, ethically, you would have to do the right thing even if it could mean sacrificing (you fill in the blank). Ask yourself, could I do that? If yes, that would be a genuine case of a profile in courage. Not easy to do. Now on to Washington, D.C. … I’ll get back to that.

In 2008 and 2009, I had the opportunity to create and conduct two, one-day Ethical Leadership symposiums for 80 high school juniors and seniors who were student government officers, representing 10 high schools in Sutter, Yuba, and Colusa counties. The entire premise of these symposiums was based on Admiral Wilson’s quote. Much to their chagrin, the students had to immediately, without any other introductions, count off by eight and join their respective groups of mostly total strangers from other schools and begin cooperatively working together on various and sometimes thorny ethical situations and scenarios, come to consensus, (with their fellow strangers) report out as a group and be able to defend their results and decisions to their peers.

At the conclusion of this challenging day, students were to go back to their respective schools and employ the principles they’d learned to make their school a better place than they found it. They each received a framed copy of that quote from Admiral Wilson, in appreciation for their hard work.

These student leaders took on the challenges that day, and in so doing came up with what they agreed upon as a set of necessary characteristics of ethical leaders: trust, respect, diligence, compassion, tolerance, justice, fairness, gratitude, integrity, honesty, courage, responsibility, humility, honor, and leadership by example. The students also said they saw a strong connection between honesty and integrity, because without one you cannot have the other. Most people, they felt, would not follow someone they did not trust and trust requires integrity. Lastly, they agreed that ethical leaders should encourage, challenge, support and listen to their subordinates.

Moving on to present day Washington D.C., the question then becomes what are the ethical character traits we as a nation want or need in the next president? We all get to decide that come November. Think carefully, decide with a critical look, go back and re-examine those character traits brought out by high school students. Do we, as a nation, deserve anything less? Do we need more than we are currently receiving? We are in perilous times on many fronts. You decide.

Joe D’Andrea lives in Penn Valley. He is a retired school administrator, including county offices of education in three California counties. He is also a Marine Corps veteran (1969-1971).


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