Monday, April 24, 2006

10 Leaders Share Their Views On Leadership – Part X: “Integrity” by Mark Thaller

I have been privileged to call Mark Thaller a friend for several years now. Mark is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, where he earned two engineering degrees – a rare feat! He served as an officer in the Pacific Fleet, earned an MBA from Wharton, and was chosen as a Kauffman Fellow. Mark’s leadership roles in the private sector have taken him to the worlds of venture capital, nuclear technology, homeland security and telecommunications. Mark is also a Triathlete and the very embodiment of “multi-tasker”!

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INTEGRITY by Mark Thaller

When Al asked me to be a contributing author to the White Rhino blog and to comment upon Kelly Perdew’s thesis for Take Command I was immediately drawn to the topic of Integrity. Al provided me the purported privilege of choosing from among all 10 topics. I honestly think he knew what topics we were each likely to choose. Very shrewd, but it certainly made it easier to persuade each of us to write an article. I feel privileged to have been included with the other 9 co-authors and hope that this final article does justice to each of my esteemed colleagues.

Integrity may be the most easily over-emphasized (and hence controversial) of the ten principles since its interpretation is so subjective. Many people superficially define integrity akin to honesty or truthfulness. These are admirable traits but, to be frank, have little to do with integrity. Some of our most admired leaders, including esteemed Presidents, elder statesmen and business icons, fully understood that in some situations the ends must, in fact, justify the means. On this issue can these individuals claim to be honest, truthful and/or trustworthy? Of course not! The context and perspective of these traits is subjective and must be viewed from multiple perspectives. However, history has judged these sorts of individuals to have the highest degree of integrity. It is from this historical perspective that a more definitive notion of integrity is formed. I would suggest that integrity is most closely aligned with a code of life-long values. Said differently:

Integrity is the behavior typified that upon one’s dying breath there are:
a) no regrets
b) imminently proud of one’s life, and
c) upon full disclosure of our past actions history will judge us to have benefited humankind.

As citizens of the human race we are all measured by an individualized yardstick called “integrity”. By definition none of us will ever measure up while everybody is subconsciously doing our best (to varying degrees of effort) to meet this ever-changing standard. This definition of integrity better describes what our fallen comrades may have felt when making the ultimate sacrifice and is what all of us should be considering when addressing tough decisions. In this regard few decisions are really hard but are instead potentially embarrassing, humiliating, and/or financially costly. However, none of these decisions are difficult if one keeps the issue of integrity close at heart.

Although the notion of integrity involves a constantly changing benchmark it sometimes coincides with honesty. As a young man hoping to attend either Annapolis or West Point, I was very aware of the concept of integrity and its relationship with honesty. I had fairly high math scores on the SAT and was considered very likely to gain entry to MIT. When asked during the interview process “why is MIT your first choice” I confidently replied that: “MIT is a fantastic 3rd choice, but my top two choices are Navy and Army”. I knew that by saying this I would likely fail to gain admittance to MIT, an admittedly great institution. However, I also had a strong desire to remain true to what was critically important to me at the time. In this context I am guilty of practicing very poor negotiating skills while exercising the highest degree of honesty and integrity.

In most instances the issue of honesty and integrity are a bit gray and involve judgment. These instances occur on a daily basis among business and military leaders alike. An example I clearly recall from my early days in the Nuclear Submarine Force involved an underwater collision. The details are not relevant and remain classified. What is important is how the Navy handled the situation in the aftermath. As the Officer of the Deck I was fully responsible for the safety of the submarine and crew. I was also acutely aware of each and every detail involving this collision. In this regard so, too, were others that I had informed (including the Commanding Officer) about depth, speed, location, context and rules of engagement. Upon being issued a Letter of Reprimand I could have further elevated the situation to my personal betterment in the short term. However, the better decision in this instance was to accept what may have been inappropriate punishment with the embarrassing subtleties of the incident forever hidden. Was this honest? Perhaps not. Was this the best course for the Navy, my fellow officers and, in hindsight for myself? Absolutely! The critical benchmark on this and other issues of potential controversy would be to ask myself if, on my deathbed this afternoon, would I regret these particular actions and/or would I do anything differently? In this particular issue my response is “no”. Hence, I would suggest that on this particular issue I remained true to my personal context of integrity.

Of course no dialogue is complete without an example of something dark, sinister and foreboding. I have been doing independent work in Iraq on behalf of our government and various American and Iraq clients since 2003. Much of this activity occurred in a pseudo-covert fashion, without government endorsement outside the Green Zone and involved a wide cast of interesting characters. During this period I was frequently confronted with opportunities to involve myself with other former military officers doing business in Iraq. In nearly every instance these international entrepreneurs were behaving with questionable integrity. However, in their defense, the laws of the land (in Iraq) were practically non-existent, so why should such purported laws be followed? In contrast, I was in the country on questionable legal basis associating with admittedly unethical (and downright scary) characters while the American entrepreneurs were either serving as Reservists and/or attached to various government contracts. Hence, who was I to cast a stone? In short, the entire Iraq scenario must be evaluated from a very personal perspective. As one of the very few living in Iraq outside the Green Zone - and at my own expense - I chose to govern my actions with the understanding that I may be killed at any time. It was with this understanding that I took great care to ensure that I would regret nothing upon taking my “last breath”.

In closing the issue of integrity is subjectively personal. Each of us will someday be faced with the frank realization that our life may end within months, days or even minutes… and that the opportunity to make amends for past errors in judgment is forever lost. I believe that many, if not most, people subconsciously adhere (in varying degrees, of course) to this creed of integrity, but I also sincerely believe that those of military background have a head start. My co-authors also share this belief and as leaders we are hopefully conveying some of these leadership traits to our non-military colleagues.

Go Navy! Beat Army! (Sorry, Kelly. Somebody had to say it!).

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Thank you, Mark.

Isn't inter-serivce rivalry a wondrous thing to behold!

This concludes our series. I will make some concluding comments later this week on the series and responses I have received to the articles.


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