Military, business leaders discuss ethics at academy

One-day conference examines how both groups deal with lapses

About 150 people attend

October 28, 2003|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

One year ago, a group studying military ethics at the Naval Academy began thinking that corporate executives and military leaders - both painfully aware of how ethical lapses can harm an institution - could learn something from each other.

The result was a meeting of the minds yesterday that included speeches by U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes; retired Adm. James D. Watkins, a former U.S. energy secretary; Ronald D. Sugar, chief executive officer of Northrop Grumman; and ethics expert Amitai Etzioni.

The all-day conference was the brainchild of the Center for the Study of Professional Military Ethics at the Naval Academy. The 5-year-old center promotes ethics in leadership.

The group hopes the conference will be the first of many such discussions.

"We just got intrigued with the notion that when you look at corporate scandals, some of those challenges faced are not unique to the corporate world," said Albert C. Pierce, the center's director. "All large complex organizations have ethical challenges, and some deal with them better than others."

The military academies have also weathered their share of scandals, including the investigations into sexual assault at the Air Force Academy and the Naval Academy's cheating outbreak a decade ago.

When asked whether a change in the leadership at the Air Force Academy would be enough to foster a culture of change, Etzioni replied that there are no magic answers to ethical questions. Rather, organizations need to look at their structure, review their culture periodically through ethical surveys and repent if they make mistakes.

To learn how members of an organization stray from the mission, Etzioni said, leaders should "talk to the people involved, see what pushes them over the line and ask them what it would take to push them back."

Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, the academy's superintendent, encouraged the 150 participants in the seminar to get down to "brass tacks" in ethics discussions. "The U.S. Naval Academy can play a pivotal role for the nation in developing ethics," he said.

For CEOs such as Sugar and Kevin Sharer of biotech company Amgen, part of ethical decision-making is taking responsibility for the company's actions and making sure the leader knows what is going on.

Sharer, who worked at MCI in the 1980s, said he was "saddened and sickened" by the accounting scandal at his former company. In 1997, WorldCom bought MCI, and several of the company's leaders are accused of deceiving investors and face criminal charges.

Many in the room praised Sarbanes, who helped draft legislation in the wake of the Enron Corp. debacle that required better checks and balances and disclosure of potential conflicts of interests between auditors and the companies that hire them.

"It was the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany that were doing things in secret," the Maryland Democrat said. "We want the sunlight to shine in. We think it's a very important disinfectant."

For all the similarities between military and business, those worlds were foreign to some of the academics attending the conference.

Assistant Professor David Monsma of Loyola College in Baltimore acknowledged that he was curious about the links between the military and business cultures. He said the lessons he took from the conference would be hard to convey to his students because the study of ethics is linked to individual responsibility.

"Without individuals going through some inventory to find where their moral compass is set," he said, "all the leadership in the world won't help them."

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