Marks of Leadership

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Midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy training for war.

Last month when I shared my own experience with failed military leadership, I implored some deeper thinking. When Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel orders a comprehensive inspection of military offices worldwide to “root out” degrading materials, the problem has become elusive even to the highest office.

Perhaps, the root of the problem with sexual assault is so difficult to dig out because leaders can’t see the forest for the trees. Understanding is often gained easier by someone looking in, versus someone engulfed in it. So, I turned to a few sources outside the military, ones that have highlighted long-term repercussions.

As I tried to wrap my head around the military’s approach, I felt dismayed by the vicious cycle. The declaration of zero tolerance didn’t work in the 80’s, so why would President Obama see fit to call it part of the solution now? Furthermore, the cost of failed policy is estimated at more than $500,000 for disability benefits and treatment for the lifetime of just one sexually-traumatized veteran. Surely, the long-term impact on resources, health, and ultimately life itself, must be of consequence.

The Uniform Code of Military Justice clearly outlines sexual misconduct and its punishment. Yet, some commanders have taken it upon themselves to bend the rules – blot out offenses at their discretion, and therein become part of the problem. Dr. Katherine Sheirman, a retired Air Force colonel shared a prime motivator in the independent Air Force Times; “Having a sexual assault case in your unit is considered something bad, so commanders have had an incredible incentive not to destroy their own careers by prosecuting someone.”

In sweeping misconduct under the rug, does anyone consider the expense of losing top-notch leaders in favor of keeping toxic ones? Identifying bad leaders, according to Forbes, begins with recognizing that “just because someone holds a position of leadership, [it] doesn’t necessarily mean they should.” Army General Ray Odierno asserted that we have “a cancer within the force – a cancer that left untreated will destroy the fabric of our force.”

As revelations of rape and sexual harassment in the armed forces grow, the impulse to enlist is shifting. I remember seeing the reservations in my father’s face when I announced my decision to join the military, more than 30 years ago. In this generation of graduates, parents are voicing great concern and even steering their children away from military service.

To me, that is a tragic shift, and one that should propel the Pentagon into solution-overdrive. Nancy Parrish of Protect our Defenders spelled it out quite simply: “When military leaders are held accountable for countenancing bad behavior, then you’ll begin to see a shift in the culture.”

The military culture is under the microscope, but a much broader problem exists. Stories of sexual battery from military members, contractors, postal employees, healthcare workers, and academia, affirmed my plea for a national wake-up call. Their messages came in droves, through my social networks in response to my article. Suggested remedies were unanimously clear-cut: correct abuses, punish offenders and work to prevent incidents.

For an intimate view on the root of the problem, I turned to a military spouse who calls himself “the Army Wife Dude.” Wayne Perry serves beside his active duty wife, while “MANning the Home-Front.” I chatted with Perry after reading his family’s story in Soldiers. He offered a fresh take on the character flaws plaguing our nation’s military.

Perry reflected on meeting with the Division Sergeant Major’s wife. “She’s respected her husband for over 30 years because she’s never heard a foul remark, never a curse muttered from him. Unfortunately, the behavior seems rare in comparison to the random bombs dropped by soldiers while standing in line with children in earshot. The need to be held to a higher standard is missing, moral aspects that affect everyday life and interactions. People aren’t taking time to build relationships – there’s no cohesion,” he says, matter-of-factly.

Perry’s comment was like an “aha moment” for me. It’s not just that “we’re losing the confidence of the women who serve,” as noted by Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We’re also losing the confidence of military families. Putting it bluntly, Perry said, “Stop with the machismo – having to be the tough guy. Where’s the outspokenness about how to behave at home” and in the ranks. Alarm bells should be blaring when a military spouse — like Perry — is more worried about his deployed wife being raped than he is about her being wounded in combat.

While training and awareness programs are valuable education tools, the root of sexual assault is a moral issue, and it represents a moral compass malfunction. In my opinion, that undercuts exemplary leadership, and sadly, gives the spotlight to toxic leaders. The core of an individual’s character and moral compass ultimately regulate his or her action. Wearing the uniform and performing as “head of the household” ought to complement one another.

I asked Perry to name three essential qualities for leaders at work and at home.  His list was concise, yet poignant: connectedness, patience, and flexibility.

Then, he elaborated. Connected leaders hold themselves accountable in supporting and protecting those they serve. Patient leaders are strong-minded but also open to other strong-minded individuals. Flexible leaders think outside the box; they’re not afraid of trying something new, making improvements.

“The legacy of the internal individual is what matters,” Perry added, as a final note. In other words, the choices we make, and the actions we take, affect people at their core. For the military, folding and walking away isn’t an option. Holding onto selfless, exemplary leaders is a viable option to make a root change, restore respect, and mend faith in our nation’s military.

Maryann Makekau is an Air Force veteran, spouse of a retired member, and mother of two grown military children. She’s also an author and founder of Hope Matters.