February 04, 2010

U.S. Military Leaders Advocate Shift to Authenticity and Tolerance

Kudos to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for advocating repeal of the 1993 “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law. This hypocritical act forces honorable military men and women to be inauthentic by hiding their sexual identity or be forced out of the U.S. armed forces.

Admiral Mullen was especially forthright when he stated, “Allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do.” He went on to say eloquently, “I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens. . . For me personally, it comes down to integrity – theirs as individuals and ours as an institution.”

Mullen said what every military person knows, “I have served with homosexuals since 1968. Putting individuals in a position that every single day they wonder whether today’s going to be the day, and devaluing them in this regard, just is inconsistent with us as an institution.”

Since the passage of the 1993 law, the U.S. has officially accepted gays in the military as long as they hide their identity. In other words, your sexual identity is acceptable if you don’t tell anyone about it – or more baldly, just don’t be authentic about who you are. It’s hard to see what harm could be done to the armed forces if troops were allowed to be open, since every soldier already knows there are gays in the military. Are U.S. officials really that threatened by people who are gay or lesbian?

Last week I had the privilege of delivering the keynote address on “Authentic Leadership” at the U.S. Naval Academy’s annual leadership conference in Annapolis. This event included leaders from more than fifty universities and academies in addition to hundreds of cadets. As I got to know many future officers, it never occurred to me to wonder which of them might be gay. But it troubled me greatly to think that U.S. law forces those who are to be inauthentic – precisely the opposite message of my talk.

In my “Authentic Leadership Development” classes at Harvard Business School, I have had several retired military officers share with me their deep fears that every day their sexual identity might be exposed by a former partner or someone who didn’t like them. It is not surprising, but very sad, that these graduates of our military academies gave up their careers because they could no longer tolerate living a lie and living in fear.

It is worth noting that it isn’t just gays who are forced to compromise their honor. Many straight officers have confided their worries about having some of their best troops exposed and not wanting to begin the process of their expulsion from the military.

Most disappointing of all was Senator John McCain, who reversed his 2006 position when he declared, “When the military wants to change the policy, we should consider seriously changing it.” Now, he is accusing Secretary Gates of being “clearly biased.” Before making such accusations, McCain should look in the mirror and ask himself, “Who’s biased here?”

Sixty years ago – long before the passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Bill – the armed forces led the nation in integrating its ranks from top to bottom. What a loss it would have been to this nation had General Colin Powell not been permitted to serve his country as chairman of the Joint Chiefs. It’s about time that the military catches up to the rest of the country in openly accepting gays throughout its ranks. Might there be a gay person who could rise to the top as General Powell did?

One of the cases in my HBS course is on Lisa Sherman, a talented executive who felt forced to resign from Verizon in 1994 because she couldn’t safely reveal her sexual identity. Her departure caused former CEO Ray Smith not only to change the Verizon culture but to campaign for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

I open the class by talking about our “hidden differences” and asking students to write down one thing about themselves they don’t want anyone else to know. This simple exercise enables them to “walk in Lisa Sherman’s shoes,” rather than objectifying her as a lesbian that many cannot relate to. All of us have hidden differences. Shouldn’t we work toward a society where we can share them openly without fear of rejection?

Thanks to Admiral Mullen and Secretary Gates for bringing us one step closer to the time when all Americans can reveal their hidden differences without fear of retribution and become truly authentic leaders.