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How to Fix the Character Crisis in Government

Ethical lapses are a threat to operations and public trust.

Today more than ever before, the importance of maintaining an emphasis on good character throughout government institutions, military and the federal workforce is critical to the nation’s success. Yet the pressure on government executives and workers is at an all-time high. While budgets continue to be constrained, the demand for solutions and innovation is immense.

These stress factors drive many of the ethical failings we are seeing across the government and political spectrum. Highly charged environments create immense challenges of character for government executives and their teams. Many leaders and individual contributors do persevere through these challenges, carrying with them the mantra of good character as role models for others in their organization. Yet ethics failures are still occurring and seem to be on the rise.

What are the solutions for addressing this threat to effective operations and public trust in government?

Last month, the Global Ethics Summit brought together leaders from a variety of industries to address the critical issue of creating competitive and innovative organizations that also are self-empowered by corporate cultures founded on strong ethics and character. The event, for which I was a speaker, was hosted by the Ethisphere Institute.

While listening to top executives from global corporations share how they combated, overcame and championed ethical issues, I reflected on the challenges facing federal leaders and their institutions and on the private sector lessons that can translate to successful strategies in government.

The following are some key objectives for government executives who seek to make character a core part of their organizational culture:

  • Command a strong leadership position. Leaders and management teams can make or break an organization’s commitment to ethics and a character-based culture. Either the priority is choosing to do the right thing, or it’s not. If leadership waxes or wanes on character, it reverberates down through the ranks like wild fire. As the late Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf said, “Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy.” While other may rank leaders based on their personalities, experiences and resumes, nothing is more important than good character.

  • Recruit the best. Whether it’s a Fortune 500 company, a division of a federal agency or a military unit, the team is only as strong as its individual members. The strongest teams are composed of people who are committed to strong values and supporting the mission rather than individual gains. Three characteristics that build character and strong teams are trust, accountability and commitment. Unless these critical elements are inherent in an organizational culture, success will be challenging, no matter the quality of the team recruited.

  • Make ethics a way of life. Military institutions know the importance of a well-ingrained culture. It starts with foundation statements that declare an organization’s mission, values and guiding principles. These are reinforced by codes of conduct and ethics, which must be reviewed and repeated regularly. It is only when standards of good character and doing the right thing are made clear and shared openly, and frequently, that they become a way of life for everyone in the organization.

It is more critical than ever to reinforce character-based organizational cultures that value and support ethical behavior throughout federal institutions. The government will continue to face new challenges and unexpected threats that add pressure and create temptations. Industry partners who benefit from successful government operations also have an important role in supporting and enabling the kind of character-centric culture required for agencies to thrive. With a strong foundation and persistent organizational culture based on integrity and values, we will all be better positioned to face future challenges together.

J. Phillip “Jack” London is executive chairman of CACI International Inc.

(Image via karen roach/Shutterstock.com)

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