Lessons From Peter Drucker

Personal Integrity—Its Risks and Consequences

William Cohen, Ph.D.
Posted: 04/04/2010

Drucker felt that personal integrity had to be a part of everything that a manager did, and that without it, a leader had no legitimacy to lead. Personal integrity frequently plays a major role in a professional becoming a leader, and personal integrity is important as a basis for all of Drucker’s views on leadership and management.

My Personal Integrity Challenge

I first wrote about this incident in one of my books. Some of the individuals who I interviewed preferred to remain anonymous. I decided to do the same and identified the protagonist not as myself, but as "Herb." However in a speech after publication, I told the story in the first person. Someone in the audience who had read my book thought that I had stolen "Herb’s" story—pretty ironical for a story that was supposed to be an example of personal integrity. Since then, I’ve explained that I was "Herb." Anyway, here is "Herb’s" story and how it affected my future in a way I never expected.

As a newly minted lieutenant, Herb was a new navigator on a B-52 nuclear bomber. Among Herb’s responsibilities was the programming and launch of the two air-to-ground "cruise" missiles called "Hound Dogs." The missiles were new and there were still many problems with them. Those in Herb’s squadron that had flown with them got mixed results. Sometimes the missiles were right on target. More often they went far from where intended.

The aircrew really didn’t really launch the missiles. That would have been much too expensive, as each missile cost millions of dollars. The navigator programmed them in the air, constantly updating their information. This took several hours. About thirty minutes from the target, he put the missiles into a "simulated launch" mode and then instructed the pilots to follow a compass-like needle indicator on their consoles. If the needle turned right, the pilots turned the aircraft right. If the needle turned left, they turned the aircraft left. When they did this, the aircraft followed the course to the target according to information in the missile’s computer and inertial guidance system.

Fifteen seconds from the target Herb turned on a tone signal which was broadcast over the radio. On the ground, a Ground Control Intercept (GCI) site tracked Herb’s aircraft on radar. At the point where the missile would normally dive into its target, the missile would automatically terminate the tone signal. The course the missile would take to the ground once it started its final dive was based on predetermined factors. Using this information the GCI site calculated where the missile would have impacted if it had actually been launched.

These practice impacts had a major effect on the crews’ careers. Those that got good scores got promoted. Those that did not, were held back.

Herb’s five crewmates were all far more experienced than he. They were more senior in rank and were combat veterans of both World War II and Korea. Herb was fresh out of flying school. Herb had never been in combat and had never even served on an aircrew before.

All aircrews were having problems with these new missiles. However, it hadn’t mattered because all were given six months to learn to work with the missiles without penalty, so, the bad scores didn’t count. What no one knew at the time was that it was not the aircrews that were causing the problems, but the extreme sensitivity of the missiles and the more complex techniques required by those who maintained and serviced the missiles’ computer and navigation guidance systems on the ground.

However, the six months period of learning had expired. While on seven day alert, Herb’s aircraft commander called the crew together. "When we fly our first training mission after alert, we have missiles that will actually be scored for the first time," he said. "We’re not going to debate this. We’re going to cheat to make sure we get reliable scores. All I want to know from the navigators is how to do this."

The senior navigator who was also the bombardier responded: "That’s easy," he said. "Don’t follow the missile needle. I’ll figure out an adjustment for the ballistics, and I’ll "bomb" the target using my bombsight. All you have to do is ignore the missiles directions and follow the bombsight’s needle as we normally do. The tone is the same for the bombsight or the missile. The GCI site will not know that we’re actually bombing the target. It will be simple, and no one will know."

Herb was shocked and speechless. As a West Pointer he had been taught that you do not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate anyone that does. Some classmates terminated their own careers for the ideal of honor and integrity. This was expected. Honor and integrity were considered more important than success, and there was no compromise with it under any circumstances.

Herb’s crew was released from their duties after a week on ground alert. They had three days of time off with their families before getting together to plan the twelve hour training flight with the missiles. The mission would include the simulated missile launch, some regular bomb runs, some navigation and bomb runs at low level, an aerial refueling, and a celestial navigation leg.

The three days were terrible for Herb. He was new to the crew and the squadron, but he had heard rumors that cheating sometimes occurred. Now he was being ordered to do it with the very missiles for which he was entrusted. He talked it over with other more experienced officers in his squadron. They advised him not to rock the boat. They told Herb that this sort of thing happened and that many cheated occasionally. If he refused to do this, they said, it would likely end his career.

Herb had worked long and hard to join the Air Force. He had studied hard for an appointment to West Point, and with difficulty managed to make it through his four years there. Herb had spent a year in navigation school, six months in bombardier school, attended Air Force survival training, and more weeks of B-52 ground and flying training. It had taken six years altogether. How could Herb let it all slip away for this small act of cheating which was apparently generally accepted?

"I was taught integrity first and that this was the essential of being an officer and a leader. This lie was contrary to everything I had been taught and believed in," said Herb.

When Herb’s crew met to plan the mission, he asked to speak to his aircraft commander privately. As soon as they were alone, Herb told him: "If you want to cheat, that’s up to you. But get yourself a new navigator, because I’m not going to do it." Herb’s commander was furious. The verbal abuse was extensive, and he was left literally shaking in his boots, thinking that his hard-worked-for career was at an end. After trying unsuccessfully to convince Herb to cheat, his commander left the room and slammed the door. Said Herb: "I was plenty scarred, and I thought it was the end." He knew nothing about any other career to support his family, and like today, there was a recession and jobs were scarce. The airlines had long since stopped using navigators, so even this wasn’t a work option.

An hour or so later, Herb’s commander was still angry when he said he wanted to see Herb alone. Once alone he said, "Okay. We’ll do it your way. But those missiles better be reliable." "I’ll do everything possible to make them so, but I won’t cheat," responded Herb. He heard later that this commander told someone, "I don’t know whether Herb’s a good navigator or not, but I trust him. He’s honest and he’s got guts."

The missiles were reliable. Herb didn’t know if he were skilled, lucky, or whether his more experienced crewmates had found a way to fool their inexperienced young navigator and cheat anyway. One thing Herb did know. He knew how far he would go for what he believed to be right. He would go all the way. Out of two hundred officers in his squadron, Herb was one of only three to eventually become a general. "I believe what I did then helped me immensely over the years and it still affects my thinking today. Had it ended my career then and there, it still would have been worth it for this priceless piece of knowledge about myself."

Over the years I have seen and worked with many leaders in and out of the military. Some have demonstrated great personal integrity and gone on to great things. Others have demonstrated great integrity and it cost them their careers. And yes, I have seen some with no integrity at all get promoted. But as I’ve heard Drucker say, although followers will forgive a leader much, they will never forgive him for a lack of integrity. And as Shakespeare wrote: "This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man."

Adapted from Drucker on Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2010)

William Cohen, Ph.D.
Posted: 04/04/2010