Duty: the double-edged sword

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- A 1970 graduate of the Air Force Academy recently asked my opinion about what I thought the Academy is doing well today. He knew I've been serving this past year as The Academy's senior scholar, assigned to the Center for Character and Leadership Development. He also knew that I've never been in the military.

Although his question caught me by surprise, my response was immediate. "Without a doubt," I replied, "I'm amazed at how quickly and effectively the Academy teaches basic cadets about their duty."

Until this past year, I never really thought much about the virtue of duty. Growing up, my parents didn't emphasize the concept, and my wife and I certainly never used the term or emphasized duty with our own children: We focused on responsibility, a much different virtue. Moreover, duty is certainly not a virtue valued or practiced in the academic world: Professors have responsibilities, not duties.

So I hope you will appreciate how much I've learned this past year about duty, not only how essential it is to the military ethic but how quickly our basic cadets grasp its foundational role in the profession they have chosen to pursue. I am not suggesting that all cadets fulfill their duty all the time. It takes time for cadets to develop the settled habits of the "Five Rights": Right place. Right time. Right uniform. Right attitude. Ready to do the right thing. I'd also argue that a cadet or an Airman can develop these habits and do so for reasons that have nothing to do with duty (such as a desire to graduate or to receive a promotion).

Yet the Air Force Academy is doing something right. As a member of the faculty, I've had the opportunity to listen to cadets sincerely express their commitment to duty, and I've seen them display this virtue on a consistent basis. Moreover, I can't imagine practicing duty without sacrificing something -- free time for cadets, family time for Airmen -- and I have been amazed at how quickly cadets recognize and accept that their duty requires them to make these sacrifices, including their ultimate sacrifice to our nation.

But duty may be a double-edged sword. I wonder whether the "command and control" model of the military promotes a mindset about duty that diminishes the willingness of an officer to stand up for what is right regardless of whom the officer is talking to. I wonder whether cadets and airmen believe candor, the willingness to tell the truth even when it's unpopular, is part of their duty.

To me, fulfilling one's duty also means having the courage to ask great questions. Yet in large bureaucracies, most middle managers learn to defer to authority, recognizing the occupational hazards of questioning ideas, processes that are "owned" by someone with more authority. What too often results is a culture where no one speaks up, takes a critical stance or questions assumptions.

This seems especially pertinent within the military bureaucracy, where duty can be seen as nothing more or less than developing and mastering a "go along to get along" mindset. Instead, if duty is truly a calling, then I want to suggest that it's the duty of all military officers, at the right time and place and in the right way, to "call into question" their profession's assumptions and dominant ways of thinking.

My concern, however, is that within the military asking great questions is too often seen as an act of defiance or disobedience, rather than as the actions of someone fully committed to his or her duty as a military officer.

Of course, there is a set of skills associated with asking great questions or speaking with candor. We all know that asking a question at the right time or speaking with candor in the right way makes a difference. But these skills ought to be modeled and taught by military leaders who aim to create a culture where candor and asking great questions is valued and ever-present.

Even here, I'd argue that once cadets have displayed competence in what they need to do and learn how to do it, we should begin to encourage cadets to ask "why" questions, including those thorny, difficult questions that may challenge the veracity and effectiveness of the Academy's many long-standing traditions and practices. Moreover, these questions, raised mostly by fourth- and third-class cadets, should be fully answered by the upperclassmen within their squadrons.

Indeed, my hope would be that over time the Cadet Wing leadership will display the courage to strengthen or enhance a particular tradition or practice, all because a third-class cadet had the courage, as part of his or her duty, to respectfully ask "Why do we do it this way?"

For me, "ready to do the right thing" captures the essence of duty. I also suspect that most of the time "the right thing" has little to do with acts of candor or asking great questions. But sometimes the "right thing" is about the courage to stand up for one's subordinates or to ask a question in the search of a better way to do things. In any organization, there are times when speaking with candor or asking a question is a matter of your responsibility. And in the military, it's your duty.