In their personal and professional lives, great leaders demonstrate integrity at all times. When I was a college student at the U.S. Air Force Academy, we vowed to live by an honor code which states, “We will not lie, cheat, or steal nor tolerate among us anyone who does.”  

As Chairman of the Cadet Wing Honor Committee my senior year, I was responsible for teaching ethics, instilling a sense of honor among the cadets, and enforcing our honor code. During my year as Honor Committee Chairman, I conducted over 250 investigations and convened 108 Honor Boards. I personally served as Chairman –which is like being an administrative judge– on 72 of those Honor Boards. Eight cadets were chosen at random to serve on juries that studied evidence and heard witness testimony in each case.

It is impossible to lead if you have no credibility with the people in your organization, and in too many organizations, integrity is just a catch-phrase.

- Charles Garcia

In this quasi-judicial role, I participated in the questioning of witnesses and sat in on the deliberations to ensure that the cadet jurors remained focused on the case at hand. Sixty of the 72 boards over which I presided culminated in the dismissal from the Academy of the cadets found guilty of violating the honor code. 

One senior cadet who was a friend of mine had completed all his academic classes and was awaiting graduation when some friends from high school decided to visit him. As his parents drove across the country from Maine for the ceremonies, my friend partied with his buddies late into the night before deciding to take them on a midnight tour of the dorms. 

The problem was, however, that civilians were not allowed in the cadet dormitories. When the rowdy bunch entered the dormitory, they were stopped by an underclassman in charge of dormitory security who challenged their right to enter. The graduating cadet pulled out his identification card and lied, saying the visitors were also cadets. With the graduating cadet’s assurance that they were all authorized visitors, the underclassman allowed them access but decided to report the incident after the long hair of the civilian visitors attracted his attention.

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The graduating cadet had committed an Honor Code violation by lying to the underclassman. An Honor Board was convened and my friend was kicked out, and not allowed to become an officer in our nation’s armed forces. He earned his academic degree, but never fulfilled his dream of becoming a combat Air Force fighter pilot.

An example of the difficult struggle to maintain integrity in the face of overwhelming pressure is that of retired Admiral Charles “Chuck” Larson, a former Eagle Scout and U.S. Naval Academy graduate.

One of his first challenges came early in his Navy career after Larson was assigned as training officer. His squad was preparing for a major inspection, and a superior officer discovered that the squad had not completed some of the required training. 

“He called me in and asked me to fake the training records and make it look like we’d had all these lectures. I refused to do it,” Larson said. “I told him that I would put a good training program together and I would guarantee we would execute it, but I wasn’t going to fake stuff we didn’t do. I told him that if he wanted someone to do that then he’d better assign someone else as training officer. He backed down. Yes, we took hits on the inspection, but then we put in a good training program. I learned that if you compromise on the little things when you’re a junior, it’s murder to stand up for the big things when you’re a senior.”

It wasn’t long after the training incident that Larson was selected to be a military assistant to President Nixon. Again, his honesty was tested when a two-star admiral asked him to poke around the White House for certain information. 

“He said there were some things they needed to know. He wanted me to snoop around in the in-baskets and find some stuff – to be their spy and bring information back to them,” said Larson. “I told him I’d always be loyal to the Navy and I’d always represent the Navy well, but I support the Commander in Chief and my loyalty is there, and if he wanted that sort of person in this position then he’d better tell the White House they selected the wrong guy and send me back to sea. He backed down and I was never asked to do anything like that again.”

His integrity intact, Larson went on to have a stellar career. He served twice as U.S. Naval Academy superintendent and also served as Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, the highest ranking officer in charge of all American forces in the Asia-Pacific zone. 

These two very different stories –Larson, who managed to remain true to his own sense of right and wrong, and my senior cadet colleague, who was more easily swayed to forgo his principles– exemplify the harsh truth that we all will be called upon to uphold our own code of honor.

It is impossible to lead if you have no credibility with the people in your organization, and in too many organizations, integrity is just a catch-phrase. Leaders must reinforce the company’s ethical standards, and it’s not enough to just put them in an employee handbook.

The penalties for violating the rules must be enforced and punishment must be more than a verbal slap on the wrist. A true leader finds a way to exemplify the principles of honesty at all times and gets others to follow these same tenets, regardless of the consequences. 

Charles Garcia, CEO of Garcia Trujillo Holdings, has served in the administration of four presidents. He is the best-selling author of two leadership books and was named in the book "Hispanics in the USA: Making History" as one of 14 Hispanic role models for the nation books. Follow him on Twitter: @charlespgarcia.

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