Last week, I posted this blog, “Leadership Development is a Choice”; that night, I listened to the Republican Presidential Debate.

When Brett Baier broached the possibility of the U.S. military refusing to follow an illegal order, I listened to Donald Trump’s response with dismay.

He had to be aware of how neither the military nor our society would ever tolerate, “I was just following orders.” This response has been an unacceptable since the Geneva Conventions in 1949.

Sadly, our nation revisited that message in the 1970s. Why Mr. Trump was not aware that we would never follow an unlawful order and had reversed course within 24 hours; this is not what “leadership is all about.”

qualities of leadership

Know Your Leadership Culture

Before I entered the Army, a cadre of commissioned and non-commissioned officers, many who had served during the Viet Nam war, trained me as an ROTC cadet.

The trial of Lieutenant Calley was less than a decade old at that point, so the Mai Lai massacre was still very fresh in their minds. One thing was certain: They made clear that these atrocities were blight on the Army, something our culture of professionals would never tolerate again.

The reader’s digest version: After World War II, the trials in Nuremburg, Tokyo and the Geneva Conventions set standards for committing war crimes. Lieutenant Calley’s actions in murdering innocent women and children contradicted these standards; following orders was not considered a legitimate defense.

Despite the penchant to follow orders in the military, there are principles that supersede any unlawful order. If ever in doubt, we were expected to know these principles, and we were expected to disobey any unlawful order.

Know Your Guiding Principles, then Lead

Within hours of graduating, we would recite our Oath of Office, the verbal statement every officer swears (or affirms) at commissioning. It reads:

I, state your full name, do solemnly swear, that I will support and defend, the Constitution of the United States, against all enemies, foreign and domestic. That I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation, or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully, discharge the duties, of the office upon which I am about to enter, so help me God.

Above all else, we were expected to uphold the principles in the Constitution.   These, and the Army values should guide us in our decision-making. If ever in doubt, we were expected to apply common sense.

Lieutenant Calley, while found guilty, had his sentence reduced. Never again, however, would our nation tolerate an excuse to follow an unlawful order.

Leadership Responsibilities: It’s OK to Change Your Position, but Be Clear on Your Principles First

Here is an excerpt of exchange from the Republican Presidential Debate, Thursday, March 3, 2016:

BAIER: Mr. Trump, just yesterday, almost 100 foreign policy experts signed on to an open letter refusing to support you, saying your embracing expansive use of torture is inexcusable. General Michael Hayden, former CIA director, NSA director, and other experts have said that when you asked the U.S. military to carry out some of your campaign promises, … the military will refuse because they’ve been trained to turn down and refuse illegal orders. So what would you do, as commander-in-chief, if the U.S. military refused to carry out those orders?

TRUMP: They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me.

BAIER: But they’re illegal.

TRUMP: Let me just tell you, … that’s the way I feel.

BAIER: But targeting terrorists’ families?

TRUMP: And — and — and — I’m a leader. I’m a leader. I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.

BAIER: Even targeting terrorists’ families?

The Role of Commander in Chief, CEO, or Any Leader

I may be biased, but I happen to think the U.S. Army has the best leadership development program in the world. Needless to say, Mr. Trump’s response shocked me. Certainly, his comment,

“If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.”

is NOT one of the leadership character traits I learned about while in ROTC, or throughout my career.

At the end of my Army career, I had the privilege of leading an ROTC battalion at two Boston universities. There, my cadre and I were responsible for sharing code of conduct insights I received 20 years before.

Our greatest responsibility: transform our college students into Army officers, one we took seriously.

When I heard Mr. Trump’s response, I thought it was the worst thing anyone in a leadership position could ever communicate. Real or perceived, it came across as a threat.

Shape Your Leadership Culture

Ultimately, the people of any organization define its culture; not just the leader. While everyone must follow the guiding principles, live the values, and apply common sense if ever in doubt, the leader shapes the culture.

Attempting to persuade others to compromise principles definitely is NOT what leadership is all about.