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Are ethics for lawyers or leaders?

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo.- -- At an ethics course I recently attended, the instructor posed the following question: Has the ethics program become too much of a program that belongs to lawyers rather than leaders?

Have we shifted from looking at ethics as a tool leaders can use to enhance the culture of their commands, to looking at it as a legal requirement or something that simply must pass muster with the legal department? 

In the last two years, we have seen an unusual amount of general officer misconduct.  According to USA Today, 15 general officers have been disciplined for unethical behavior since 2010.  The long list of misconduct includes taking lavish trips at the government's expense, extramarital affairs, sexual assaults, accepting bribes of gifts and prostitutes, creating a toxic atmosphere and berating subordinates, binge drinking at a nuclear conference and passing counterfeit poker chips in a casino--among others.

As a result of this rash of unethical behavior at the highest levels, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel ordered expanded ethics training.  Because of this initiative, judge advocate general will be providing an increased amount of ethics training to our commands.  However, while asking your JAG about questionable behavior is always a great idea, most of the scandals mentioned above could not have been solved by increased ethics training.  The officers above did not need to consult with their JAGs to know whether accepting bribes, assaulting others, or passing counterfeit poker chips was acceptable.  They knew it was wrong.

The fact is that a culture of ethical behavior starts from the top down.  It starts when leaders at every level demand ownership of the ethics program by emphasizing it, living it and demanding ethical behavior from themselves and others.  As lawyers, we stand ready to assist.
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