There is much discussion in the public domain about the current crises of leadership, or perhaps more specifically, a crisis of ethical leadership. This public sentiment is founded in legitimate concern. The failings of corporate, nonprofit, and governmental leaders over the last two decades have been pervasive and damaging, breeding an air of cynicism that has permeated our society. Moralistic pluralism—the widespread belief that an endless spectrum of personal ethics are both preeminent and sufficient—has failed.  


While institutional greed and moral ineptitude in the private sector deserve to be under continued scrutiny, the road to escape this societal morass must be paved by the men and women of the public sector. By the sheer virtue of their title “public servants,” the professionals comprising the federal government have a rich heritage of virtuous service, and it’s time to reclaim that sense of service and ethical foundation. Combining “virtue” and “federal government” in the same sentence may give the cynical reader cause to smile, but I am confident there is a thread of honorable DNA that reaches from our founding fathers, through our current public figures, to the most junior civil servant in government.


I am not a philosopher or an ethicist—I am a military leader. I’ve had the privilege of leading some of our nation’s finest warriors and government civilians. From the 19-year-old patriot on a four-year enlistment to the old woman who wore tennis shoes, I consider myself fortunate to have served with them all.


Ethical Leadership in Uniform


Let us first examine the roots of ethical leadership and behavior for those in uniform. The very nature of the military profession—managing and perfecting the art of destruction—inherently involves moral dilemma. This has been true since the beginning of warfare. As martial leaders responsibly apply moral and ethical principles to their activity, they must earn high levels of societal trust. Over time, this warrior ethos has developed self-regulating moral codes that guide those deploying lethal force to attain a desired political end. Some of these codes―such as the Uniform Code of Military Justice―have been written into law and formal regulations, while others―such as the general principle to avoid needless collateral destruction in the conduct of war―have informally developed as a reflection of American societal values.


Differences among military branches and the subcultures within are transcended by a professional character and sense of honor born out of a shared mission. This martial community demands a complex moral standard that can never be fully regulated by “rules.” Adhering to a rulebook is inherently less difficult than abiding by standards of character and virtue. Therefore, it is the development of honorable virtues, and the rigorous, internal regulation of them, that distinguish the character of the military professional.


Principles for Civilian Service


So how does this relate to the government civilian? Federal service employees seldom share the crucible of a wartime experience to forge bonds and develop the ethical codes of a warrior. If “minimizing collateral damage” is a military ethical principle, what is a commensurate principle for civilian government service? One potential ethical code could be, “Always conduct business that is above reproach and demonstrates good stewardship of taxpayer dollars.”  While this may not have the romantic flair associated with combat principles, it nonetheless offers an ethical code requiring a sense of character and virtue that cannot be strictly legislated. True adherence to this code requires a level of professional commitment rivaling a military ethic.


Regardless of our segment of government service, we are all public servants. Just what does it mean to serve one’s nation? Does public service require a more elevated ethical code than private-sector work?


Consider the “bottom line” of various sectors of society. Private industry clearly has a profit motive. There is a responsibility to shareholders and employees to make decisions in view of the fiscal bottom line. Even a company’s moral and public reputation is correlated to the impact on short- and long-term profits. This is not a pejorative observation but simply recognition of the capitalistic marketplace. Even the reputation and public image of nonprofit organizations are correlated to their bottom line, which is usually measured in terms of mission effectiveness via financial support. However, federal employees do not work for a bottom line—their ethical service is the bottom line. The decisions they make and the tasks they complete affect, at some level, the security, capability, or effectiveness of our nation’s government.  


To consistently serve in a manner that maximizes the stewardship of limited resources without influence from either selfish or external motives requires a workplace ethic very similar to that of the military. In fact, military members and other federal employees have much in common. Both types of public servants have taken an oath to “bear true faith and allegiance” to the U.S. Constitution. Whereas military members are reminded of this oath every few years as they reenlist or receive promotions, it has been my observation that many federal service members have not truly reflected on this oath since they joined as the government workforce. The very fact that they “raised their right hand” to begin their federal service implies a serious commitment and ethos that is too seldom acknowledged and promoted by government leadership.


Federal employees are (rightly) held to a high standard of ethical conduct. The nature of their employment as public servants implies, much like the military, that they are never truly “off duty.” Yet while these foundational similarities exist between military and federal civil service, there is a pervasive sense that government civilian leadership is not capitalizing on these similarities in ethos and moral responsibility. If the federal service is going to lead the way in regaining the public’s trust, government civilians must exhibit the same high ethical standards expected of those in uniform.


Building Character into the Culture


Like most bureaucracies, the federal government has proven its ability to establish legal ethical standards. But there is much room for improvement in the area of personal character development. Leaders should consider certain techniques to establish an organizational culture permeated by high moral standards and ethical conduct.  


Set the tone with executive leadership. An annual computer-based training module on compliance ethics will not establish an ethical command culture. The most effective ethical training is a face-to-face conversation, often case-study based, and ideally led by the executive leader, human resources, or legal representative.

  • Establish ethical codes. A formal set of ethical values hanging on the wall is only the beginning. This code must be translated into each work cubicle and office. 
  • “Operationalize” values into practical decisions. Training should be both formal and informal. Promote conversations about how to do things ethically, whether in established training or at an opportune moment at a staff meeting. The alert leader will find opportunities to have open conversations about ethical decisions.  
  • Reflect ethical values in internal processes. Personally “walk the talk,” and ensure workplace practices and processes are consistent with stated workplace values. This includes hiring, promotion, and other key processes tailored to your organization.
  • Character is not a private issue. It is time to move past the fear encumbering this conversation. Leaders can promote ethical values without delving into foundational issues of personal belief. Regardless of one’s spiritual inclination, professional and ethical behavior can and should be the expectation.
  • Accountability is key. Personal development, honest feedback, and consistent, measured accountability are vital to the health of an ethical command culture.

Organizational ethics is a culture that is set, shaped, and reinforced by leadership. As federal service leaders, we must invigorate this ethical culture by discussing ethics with our workers. This simple technique will give employees practical training in general ethical reasoning and will visibly establish our unambiguous position on issues of character and model techniques to discuss these weighty issues.


Our frenetic pace does not allow the deep intellectual thought required to legitimately consider matters of ethics and moral development, and we continue this lack of prioritization at our own peril. The American federal workforce is unique. We are called to serve—not a supervisor or boss, but a proud nation and set of higher ideals. The bottom line of our service and mission accomplishment is steadfastly based on our competence and character. While we are good at training to competence, we cannot afford to ignore training to character. It is time for the federal workforce to commit to a renewed standard of ethical public service.   


Navy Capt. Chuck Hollingsworth is commanding officer of the Center for Personal and Professional Development in Virginia Beach. A P-3 pilot, his 27-year career includes leading numerous Navy organizations. Contact him at chuck.hollingsworth@navy.mil.

Required Government Disclaimer: Per the Joint Ethics Regulation section 2-207, the views presented are the personal views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense.