Blowup at Nuclear Command

This week’s news contains a report that dozens of Air Force officers entrusted with maintaining U.S. nuclear missiles are accused of cheating, or turning a blind eye to cheating, on a competency test. Because it’s nuclear-related, this story is likely to stay in the news cycle for several days.

Whatever the truth turns out to be, it’s a testament to the slow drift away from values that can happen in any organization. It’s interesting because there’s no doubt that at the nuclear base in question, as for most government and corporate offices in America, there will be a poster on a wall somewhere that says “Our Values”. These values are invariably excellent, usually including things like honesty, transparency, trust, integrity and customer service.

What actually happens, of course, it that we soon find out “how it really is” when we join an organization. One of the old hands will brief us, or just as often, the ethic of “how it really is” is palpable and very obvious – we can feel it in the air. Occasional blast emails and lectures from leadership do nothing to change this; in fact, they serve as reminders that leadership is out of touch, wants to stay out of touch, and doesn’t know or care “how it really is”.

Often, organizations don’t realize how far they’ve strayed until something very bad happens and they discover just how much they have drifted from their values. That’s when you get an Enron collapse, a investment banking crisis or a scandal at a nuclear command center. The time to make the investment in people was before the crisis – now it’s too late.

After the inevitable political finger-pointing and villain-finding from the nuclear competency test scandal settles down, hopefully the real challenge will be addressed at a higher conceptual level. The problem is not bad people, but bad leadership and lack of investment in reality. Every team needs to get away at least once a year, with their leaders, in order to look at “how it really is” and to practically rehearse and demonstrate their real values. Without that sanity check, and under the pressures of work and the everyday, a slow drift toward danger is inevitable – and the edge of the cliff is unpredictable.

Far from being hocus-pocus or “touchy-feely”, and if done in the right way, practical team development focused on productivity and operational readiness is a matter of simple survival.

If you are wondering how to keep work teams aligned with organizational values, give me a call on 202 257 5593. We aren’t consultants, so all advice is free.

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