Integrity first and the boiling frog

  • Published
  • By Maj. Bryon Turner
  • 103rd Airlift Wing, Inspector General Office
Prologue: As the story goes, if you were to drop a frog into a pot of boiling water, it would immediately jump out, painfully aware of the hot water below.  But if you were to drop it in a temperate pot of water and gradually turn the heat up little by little, the frog might become acclimated to the gradual change in temperature and eventually boil to death, unaware of the changes going on around and within it.  A bit dramatic for this editorial, but a valid metaphor none the less.

The Air Force's core values were established and integrated into the lexicon well before I enlisted into the Connecticut Air National Guard in August of 1995. 

Integrity first, service before self and excellence in all we do were concepts that all new enlistees were steeped in from day one.  I would later get a refresher of sorts at the now defunct Academy of Military Science where I earned my commission.  These words have graced many posters, editorials, the "little blue book" and countless speeches observed throughout my nearly 21 years of service and, like most, I have tried to adhere to these values not just while on duty, but also in my personal life. 

"With the incredible diversity of our organization and the myriad of functions necessary to make it work efficiently and effectively, core values remain unifying elements for all our members. They provide a common ground and compass by which we can all measure our ideals and actions." --Secretary Widnall

These simple yet critical concepts are easy to grasp because they dovetail nicely into the values my parents, my teachers and my pastors have taught me over the years.  They mesh well with same values I learned in the Boy Scouts a lifetime ago and those that I now teach my own son as his Cub Scout Assistant Den Leader and his father.

"The Air Force is not a social actions agency. It is not an employment agency. ...The Air Force exists to fight and win wars--that's our core expertise. It's what allows us to be called professionals.  We're entrusted with the security of our nation. The tools of our trade are lethal, and we engage in operations that involve risk to human life and untold national treasures. Because of what we do our standards must be higher than those of society at large. The American public expects it of us and properly so. In the end, we earn the respect and trust of the American people because of the integrity we demonstrate." -- General Fogleman

The Air Force upped the ante when they added the four major graded areas and the Air Force Inspection System to our culture.  These were originally explained to me by a senior leader outside the IG office as something akin to new core values.  While that explanation was well-intended, it was not accurate.  The major graded areas and the sub graded areas they are comprised of are more of a check and balance used by the Commander's Inspection Program and the IG office to provide oversight and accountability to each of us on how we do our jobs, and how well we adhere to our core values while doing those jobs.

"True quality is embodied in the actions of Air Force people who take decisive steps to improve processes and products; who capitalize on quality as a leverage tool to enhance products, achieve savings, and improve customer service; and who exemplify our core values of integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do." -- General Fogleman

I would love to say that everyone I've work alongside in my career was the personification of our core values, but that would cause me to break the first and most important value.  None of us are perfect; in fact, every one of us is flawed.  I've felt 'the water' get warmer over the years--thankfully it never boiled over.  In my opinion, maintaining our integrity as individuals is the most important thing we can do, not only as Airmen, but also as parents, spouses, siblings, friends and neighbors. 

"In 1965, I was crippled and I was all alone (in a North Vietnamese prison). I realized that they had all the power. I couldn't see how I was ever going get out with my honor and self-respect. The one thing I came to realize was that if you don't lose your integrity you can't be had and you can't be hurt. Compromises multiply and build up when you're working against a skilled extortionist or manipulator. You can't be had if you don't take that first shortcut, of "meet them halfway," as they say, or look for that tacit deal, or make that first compromise." -- Admiral James B. Stockdale
We all have priorities that we must juggle in our lives, and there are times when our job can't come first.  There are times when our families must come first, and there are times when our own personal well-being must take priority.  In doing so, we prevent ourselves from burning out at work and thus better position ourselves to more often put our service to the unit and our nation first. 

Likewise, we all strive for a level of excellence, but there will be times that our best is not enough; this is why we strive for continuous improvement, team work and transparency.  This leads us back to integrity--without integrity we have nothing.  Without an element of accountability offered by an unbiased third party, a short cut taken here and a favor offered there can start the incline that is the slippery slope that should be avoided.  We must all remember the tale of the frog and the boiling water.

"The Air Force requires a high level of professional skill, a 24-hour a day commitment, and a willingness to make personal sacrifices. Unfortunately, we've all seen what happens when people forget that basic tenet. Examples of careerism and self-interest are present at every level, but they do the most damage when they are displayed by the leader. If the leader is unwilling to sacrifice individual goals for the good of the unit, it's hard to convince other unit members to do so. At that point, the mission suffers, and the ripple effects can be devastating." -- Secretary Widnall
Integrity really must be first, and we must hold ourselves and each other accountable in order for this organization to realize the heights to which it was intended.  Most of us have heard accounts of various indiscretions within our armed forces to include unprofessional relationships, fraternization, favoritism, nepotism, fraud, waste, and abuse, mismanagement of people and resources, retaliation, abuse of power and toxic leadership.  These and other misdeeds, at their root, are examples of the results of failed integrity; and their effects on good order and discipline are far reaching.  We must always guard against such shortcomings at all levels of our organization--remember the frog and its cautionary tale.

"The unfailing formula for production of morale is patriotism, self-respect, discipline, and self-confidence within a military unit, joined with fair treatment and merited appreciation from without. It cannot be produced by pampering or coddling an army, and is not necessarily destroyed by hardship, danger, or even calamity...It will quickly wither and die if soldiers come to believe themselves the victims of indifference or injustice on the part of their government, or ignorance, personal ambition, or ineptitude on the part of their leaders." --General Douglas MacArthur
But not all indiscretions are so astounding or obvious.  Somethings seem mostly innocent or minor taken at face value, but small things add up, and over time they become bigger issues, hence the boiling frog.  At the end of the day we can only control what we can control.  We can only bolster our own integrity and encourage those within our sphere of individual influence though mutual and constructive accountability.  This can be added by our wing's highly effective CCIP and the proper use of AFIS. 

One of the goals of AFIS is to provide transparency at all levels.  That transparency relies on support from each level of command within the wing and those that work for them.  To be effective, the IG must provide the wing commander an unvarnished, fact based review of the wing through a defined list of AFI driven mission assurance inspections, by-law inspections and reviews conducted in response to risk based analysis and key areas of potential undetected non-compliance as identified by senior leadership.

The important job of inspecting and evaluating is one that is shared between the Wing's IG office and members of the Wing Inspection Team from all across the unit.  The job requires those tasked with performing the difficult duty of scrutinizing their fellow unit members to do so even when things get uncomfortable.  The comprehensive inspections are done in the spirit of improving our unit and our ability to conduct our mission, but human nature dictates that it will not always be seen that way. 

"I would lay down my life for America, but I cannot trifle with my honor." --Admiral John Paul Jones
We all live in the proverbial glass house, so instinctively most of us would rather not dive too deeply into the business of others.  Likewise, we all take great pride in the work that we perform, and typically that pride can be bruised unintentionally when a compliance review of any kind is conducted by one's fellow unit members.  The AFIS program requires a delicate balance that is frankly hard to achieve and even harder to maintain while holding true to the conflicting priorities of programmatic requirements and our core values, while trying to avoid 'persona non-gratis' status with one's peers and superiors.  It is a thankless job, and at the end of the day each of us falls short of perfection, but that shouldn't stop of all from heading in that direction, in the spirit of continuous improvement.

"Core values make the military what it is; without them, we cannot succeed. They are the values that instill confidence, earn lasting respect, and create willing followers. They are the values that anchor resolve in the most difficult situations. They are the values that buttress mental and physical courage when we enter combat. In essence, they are the three pillars of professionalism that provide the foundation for military leadership at every level." --Secretary Widnall

Never squander your integrity and the self-respect that comes with it for anything or anyone.  We are all Airmen, but when all is said and done, I believe we have two people to answer to for our actions and behavior.  One lives in heaven the other greets us each morning in the mirror.  Stay true your integrity, because once it's lost it's difficult to reclaim.  The good people in your life are counting on you, don't fail them and don't let the water boil.

I hope that the United States of America has not yet passed the peak of honor and beauty, and that our people can still sustain certain simple philosophies at which some miserable souls feel it incumbent to sneer. I refer to some of the Psalms, and to the Gettysburg Address, and the Scout Oath. I refer to the Lord's prayer, and to that other oath which a man must take when he stands with hand uplifted, and swears that he will defend his Country.

"None of these words described, or the beliefs behind them, can be sung to modern music. But they are there, like rocks and oaks, structurally sound and proven. They are more than rocks and oaks; they are the wing and the prayer of the future. Whether we venture into realms of Space in our latest vehicles, or whether we are concerned principally with overhauling our engines and loading our ordnance here on the ground, we will still be part of a vast proud mechanism which must function cleanly if it is to function at all.   ...Crank her up. Let's go." --General Curtis E. LeMay