Several years ago, I spent a day at the Air Force Academy as part of the National Security Forum annual reunion. From the time our group entered the Academy grounds until we left, we saw evidence of the cadet honor code: “We will not lie, steal, or cheat nor, tolerate among us anyone who does.”
This is not some slogan that somebody put on the plaque in the foyer of the company. It’s not an arbitrary list of “values” that the company aspires to live by but never quite achieves. Nor is this a generic menu of all things good that we value: communication, teamwork, diversity, and daily flossing.
This statement defines the code the cadets have committed to uphold. They didn’t go on a two-day retreat to cook this up and then ignore it thereafter. Rather, in this simple statement that has long stood as the Academy’s Honor Code, the cadets and their counterparts at the other service academies have expressed a willingness to expel anyone who violates it, whether that person is average or exceptional. No exceptions.
Understanding Both Parts Of The Code And Value
The first part of the code seems straightforward—the second part more complicated.
The cadets state they will not tolerate anyone who violates the code. That means that if they find someone among them has lied, stolen, or cheated, they alert the authorities—not the college’s administrators but members of the Cadet Honor Committee.
Failing to do so endangers the cadet who knew of the violation but failed to report it. Cadets don’t get confused about espoused and operational beliefs: they’re all the same.
When Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “What you are speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you say,” he captured the essence of what separates espoused beliefs (what we say we believe) from operating beliefs (the way we do things around here). But Emerson’s observation omitted some other factors that influence beliefs such as habits, mental models, traditions—or the way we’ve always done things around here.
When espoused and operational beliefs align, an ecosystem where people embrace risk as a means to attain excellence prevails amid fortitude and good judgment. But that doesn’t always happen. More often, cultures evolve to reflect the beliefs senior leaders consider “correct.” Over time, decision-makers learn that certain beliefs work to reduce indecision and doubt in critical areas of the organization’s functioning.
As leaders continue to support these beliefs, and the beliefs continue to work, they gradually transform into an articulated set of more engrained beliefs, norms, and operational rules of behavior.
Out With The Old, In With The New
Gone are the days of describing both the espoused and operational beliefs of leaders, here to stay times of prescribing what must happen for success. A new recipe for results has emerged, but not everyone has lost a taste for the old one.
In most organizations, leaders give considerable thought to espoused values.
These values may appear on a plaque in the foyer or on a mouse pad, but successful leaders also model them. Values play an important role in forming an organization’s culture because senior leaders agree, “This is the way we do things around here.”
Operational beliefs describe the principles and standards that guide a leader’s ethical and business decisions.
When asked to compose a list of their organization’s values, leaders typically mention integrity, quality, customer satisfaction, and enhanced shareholder value. While laudable, which of these would a successful company not value since success demands each of them? A list of ideals any organization would embrace doesn’t really distinguish a success-driven company from any other, and it doesn’t get at the core of what might compromise a particular entity’s success.
Excellence demands that beliefs address the tempests that can trigger failure and provide a compass for navigating uncharted seas, even at high cost.
Excellence demands that beliefs address the tempests that can trigger failure and provide a compass for navigating uncharted seas, even at high cost. Click To Tweet
Do Actions Speak Louder Than Words?
Actions—the tough calls involved in running any organization—don’t speak louder than words.
Frequently, “actions” don’t even whisper because they take place between the two ears of senior leaders. However, most people don’t consider decision-making the most important action leaders take. Decisions—good, bad, seen, or unseen—serve as the link between the leader’s beliefs and the results the organization will enjoy or rue.
When we trace tragedy and regret back to their roots, we find ourselves lamenting a bad decision, or noticing, in retrospect, a decision leaders didn’t even realize they had made or failed to make. When leaders create an environment where words and actions operate in harmony, however, an almost magical alchemy takes place.
Alchemy, the medieval forerunner of chemistry, addressed attempts to transform base metals into gold. Alchemy involved liberating parts of the cosmos from temporal existence and achieving perfection.
There’s nothing magical about aligning espoused and operational values, however. Espoused beliefs start with an individual’s perception of right and wrong, someone’s sense of what ought to be as opposed to what is. When outcomes prove the individual correct, and others observe this, they create shared beliefs or shared assumptions that the same course of action will work into the future, and a culture is born.
What We Can Learn From Cadets At Military Institutions
As the new class starts its first year at the Air Force Academy, no one at the school expects magic or perfection. But they do demand that the newly minted cadets support the culture of honor the first graduates embraced and every graduate since has upheld. As students in a highly competitive environment, the cadets feel tremendous pressure to succeed academically. Yet, they know that those who attempt short cuts find expulsion, not success.
Corporate America has much to learn from the cadets at our military institutions.
They experience no cognitive dissonance about core beliefs versus espoused beliefs, because they are the same. Perhaps it’s naïve to assume all the economic woes of the US could be solved with a simple dedication to creating a culture of integrity, but it’s a start.