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At West Point symposium, top leaders ponder 'the Army ethic'

August 3, 2014 (Photo Credit: image Credit)

Ethic edge

Want more on the Army ethic discussion, or a preview of some of the related training your unit may receive? The Center for the Army Profession and Ethic hosts those materials and others at http://cape.army.mil, which is not behind a firewall — no password needed. Users can download the Army ethic white paper and provide direct feedback to CAPE officials; watch instructional videos on ethical behavior and other core concepts, including one featuring Staff Sgt. John Diem (see related story); and download training materials in multiple formats.

ID=78548166 For two days, more than 150 of the Army’s top general officers and senior enlisted leaders, with some help from authors and academics, pored over white papers, compiled briefings from breakout groups and debated everything from the Founding Fathers to Facebook.

All that to define a simple phrase — one which, at its core, defines what it means to be a soldier.

The Army Profession Annual Symposium, held here Wednesday and Thursday, focused on “the Army ethic,” a concept that’s been around since the Army’s founding and finds outlets in several pieces of doctrine, but hasn’t been codified for easier dispersal and internalization throughout the ranks.

“It’s probably one of the most important discussions I’ve been involved in in my 33 years” of service, said Lt. Gen. Robert Brown, head of the Combined Arms Center, after the symposium. “We’ve had an Army ethic for 239 years. It’s never really been captured.”

Members of the media were allowed to witness presentations at the symposium, which was presented by the Center for the Army Profession and Ethic, but weren’t permitted to attribute statements made by the participants. Some of those participants agreed to interviews after the event, including the officer behind the gathering — Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno.

“It’s important for us that we espouse the values, the ethics, and set the conditions for [soldiers] that come in here to improve themselves individually, which in the end improves us collectively,” Odierno said. “And that’s really what the profession is about: Holding ourselves to a higher standard.”

The presentations only served to advance the discussion; CAPE officials said they expect next summer’s professional symposium to tackle the same issue, and a “Living the Army Ethic” program, announced as the symposium wound down, will be in place through the end of fiscal 2015.

Symposium setup

CAPE published a 14-page white paper that included a single-page working definition of the ethic — one leaders were tasked with improving during breakout sessions.

Those sessions, and others, led participants all over the decision-making and leadership map. Some of the key topics:

Get the words right. As one participant put it, “It’s hard to write doctrine on how you make judgments.” The back-and-forth over pseudo-simple concepts of loyalty and duty, or over a “trusted” professional instead of a “trustworthy” one, showed a level of detail designed to provide a long-lasting document.

One debate that appears settled: Expect the phrase “Trusted professional” to stick.

“I think now we’re going to use this to begin to start thinking about how we brand ourselves in the future, focused around ‘trusted professional’ and what that means,” Odierno said. “I’ve already had an initial discussion with the secretary of the Army, and we are going to try to take this forward and see where we go.”

For example, this year’s AUSA Annual Meeting and Exposition will be entitled “Trusted Professional: Today and Tomorrow,” Odierno said. He didn’t specify what the new branding would mean for the existing “Army Strong” campaign.

Impart the message. Deployed correctly, a well-defined ethic creates “a set of principles, and the purpose of the principles is to inspire us to honorable service,” said Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy. Without that message reaching its audience, Caslen said, soldiers are simply bound to “rules and regulations that we’ll follow — and we’ll only do it because we have to, because of the consequences.”

Much of the symposium focused on taking the ethic beyond PowerPoints and into interactive, nontraditional education efforts, aiming to instill a set of values instead of checking a box on a training sheet.

“What does it take to inspire someone to internalize this ethic?” asked one participant. There wasn’t a clear answer.

Keep up with technology. Social media and instant communication create multiple opportunities to poke holes in the ethic’s construct. Caslen discussed the most obvious, stemming from a dinner he hosted for some cadets last year.

“A cadet asked me, ‘Sir, what do you think, is it all right if I have a private life that is different from my public life?’ ” he said. “And this is what the social media place is, so they can act and behave with a different set of values. ... This is just what the generation is thinking.”

While multiple leaders expressed the need to be a “trusted professional 24/7,” some pointed to problems with ever-present connectivity: Leaders are prone to micromanagement, or can isolate themselves behind a keyboard, avoiding the face-to-face communication that’s key to passing along core values.

“Our job is about personal interaction,” Odierno said. “It’s important that we understand and utilize the improvements that are being made in communications capability, but also recognize, ultimately, the work we do is about the human dimension.”

Or, as one attendee put it, “The little emoticon is not an emotion. It’s an icon.”

Find the ‘why.’ The Army’s top enlisted soldier summarized a running theme that many presenters touched upon: The need to explain the driving force behind the Army’s many codes, creeds, oaths and other statements of proper behavior.

“The ethic ... is the answer to the ‘why,’ ” Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond Chandler said. “You know, why is it important that we never leave a fallen comrade behind? Because we’ve got something that says we’ll serve honorably. And you’re not going to leave someone behind.”

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