The Only Way to Turn Students into Ethical Leaders

students in classroom

Strolling through the airport last week, I picked up a copy of USA Today. I know — it’s no New York Times or Washington Post, but it’s a great digest for what’s happening in our world today. Did you happen to see any of the headlines?

Three big, front-page stories were covered:

The General Motors Ignition Switch Probe. This fatal ignition switch was faulty from the beginning, and GM knew it. It’s defining characteristic is something known as the “GM nod,” described as “when everyone nods in agreement to a proposed plan of action, then leaves the room with no intention of doing anything about it.” This led to at least 13 deaths and over 50 crashes. The GM engineer who designed the ignition switch called it the “switch from hell” before the car even went to market, but the company installed it anyway. GM classified the sudden stalls at highway speeds as an issue of customer satisfaction, not safety. Are you kidding? A car stalling on the freeway is not merely a matter of dissatisfaction. By 2011, GM’s attorneys were warning them about huge lawsuits due to the airbags that failed to deploy—but it’s not until now that we see GM CEO Mary Barra promising change.

photo credit: edprocoat via photopin cc

photo credit: edprocoat via photopin cc

A second big story covered the Senate Hearing over the VA Scandal, attempting to fix the many Veterans Hospitals nationwide who’ve failed to treat former military personnel in a timely fashion. They put treatment off for months and then covered it up by doctoring the books. The Senate Veteran’s Affairs Committee is attempting to pass a bill that allows vets to temporarily utilize other hospitals if they’ve been waiting for over a month or live more than 40 miles away. Senator Bernie Sanders said, “we have a crisis on our hands.” I should say so. My dad, father-in-law and brother-in-law Tom are all vets. What’s more, Tom has had a painful experience getting timely help since he was injured while in the military. It’s pitiful. These men and women deserve our best and seem to have gotten our worst.

Finally, the third story on the front page was about the shameful conduct among officers, including at least 15 generals and admirals in the military. The outrageous behavior of these leaders include drunkenness, sexual assaults, extra-marital affairs with staff, counterfeiting and others. The offenses are so disturbing that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel named a top two-star admiral to police the top brass. Rear admiral Margaret Klein has been given this charge: “To improve professionalism, moral and ethical decision-making and the traditional values of the military.” These men lead the four branches of our military—yet can’t seem to lead themselves well.

My Big Question

I am embarrassed by all three of these stories for one simple reason: This kind of behavior among adults is far too frequent today. How can we ever hope that our kids will become moral, ethical, committed people when we can’t keep our word, can’t keep our pants on, and can’t seem to hold our tongue or liquor? To all three groups of leaders, I simply say: We don’t expect you to be perfect, but we do expect you to embody integrity. If you don’t care about your own future, would you please, please care about your children’s and grandchildren’s? Right now, they likely think that choosing money over people, covering up failures, and sexual crime is normal. The only way we can cultivate moral leaders within the next generation is to practice it in front of them as they mature. Children may not be good at listening to their elders… but they never fail to imitate them. It’s not about a lecture, but a lifestyle. Let’s give them a higher standard to shoot for.

What do you say?


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The Only Way to Turn Students into Ethical Leaders