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Columbia Missourian

J. KARL MILLER: Military leaders must not forget leadership principles

By J. Karl Miller
November 28, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST

To say that I am disappointed, embarrassed and more than a little bit angry about the disclosure that Gen. David Petraeus breached a unique trust with not only his family but also the public and his conscience is an understatement. That these indiscretions involving moral turpitude of military commanders are no longer isolated events raises my ire above the boiling point.

Along with the uncovering of misadventure by former CIA director Petraeus, the rumor of similar behavior by Marine Gen. John Allen, misappropriation of funds by Army Gen. William Ward and sexual misconduct charges against Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, there is an alarming increase in the number of commanders relieved for "inappropriate behavior."

While the majority of military officers serve with honor, integrity and moral character, the indisputable fact is that a number of those at the top of the ladder have failed to remember or chosen to ignore the charge to them stated on their commissioning document. That admonition held a unique meaning to those of us commissioned as officers in the U.S. Armed Forces in the 1950s, and since it should command the same esteem, I shall repeat it here.

"The President of the United States of America

"To all who shall see these presents, greeting:

"Know Ye, that reposing special trust and confidence in the patriotism, valor, fidelity and abilities of __________, I do appoint ("him" or "her") a ("Second Lieutenant" or "Ensign") in the (name of service) to rank as such from the ___ day of _________. This Officer will therefore carefully and diligently discharge the duties of the office to which appointed by doing and performing all manner of things thereunto belonging."

That "special trust and confidence" voiced by the president to the second lieutenant or ensign so designated was and must remain the key to that officer's performance of duty until discharged or retired. With those words, the president, as commander in chief, has assigned personal leadership responsibilities to those designated to lead, whether in battle or in performance of training objectives, daily routines or other assigned duties.

A number of individuals, military and civilian as well, have posted lists of leadership principles, ranging from the teachings of Sun Tzu, Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Martin Luther King Jr. They range in number from seven to 11 principles — most are similar in their teachings.

I have selected the 11 Principles of Leadership as taught by the Marine Corps and Navy, inasmuch as they are indelibly inscribed in my mind. Remarkably similar in fundamentals to other such enumerations, the principles include "Know yourself and seek improvement," "Know your subordinates and see to their welfare," "Keep your subordinates informed," "Ensure your orders are understood and supervised" and "Seek and take responsibility for your actions."

However, the principle I remember as the most critical and also the most difficult to follow is "Set the example." It is not surprising that failure to observe this basic tenet of leadership was the catalyst for the derelictions and character flaws stated above. Leadership is driven by one's personal standards — "Do as I say, not as I do" is the unacceptable double standard mirrored in failed leaders.

I have overheard attempts to excuse these lapses in integrity and moral judgment, citing separation from family and the innate stress of command as alibis of convenience. And the feet of clay images reflected by political leaders such as former President Bill Clinton, presidential and vice presidential candidate John Edwards and former House speaker Newt Gingrich have also been offered as necessary blessings in condoning relaxed standards.

Some may count me as naive or behind the times, but I remain adamantly confident that the public at large holds the officers of our armed forces to a higher standard than politicians. If not, heaven help us.

Finally, Leon Panetta, secretary of defense, has raised concern about numbers of senior military officers engaging in sexual misconduct and ethical lapses. Accordingly, he has ordered Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "to work with other members of the JCS to learn how to foster a better stewardship among senior military officers."

There is a simple solution to the problem — direct the attention of all officers to the first paragraph of the commissioning document, remind them that "special trust and confidence" means exactly what it says and terminate the commissions of those unwilling or unable to comply.

The members of our armed forces and the American public are entitled to leadership they can trust and respect.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via email at Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.