Why the VA Will Never Get It

“If a lion could talk, we could not understand him”.

– Ludwig Wittgenstein

We all know that the VA is in trouble for gaming the system to hide long wait times for medical care while – in some cases – veterans may have died. Meanwhile, some people who gamed the system received performance bonuses.

Outgoing VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said in his 30 May resignation speech that “Leadership and integrity problems can and must be fixed”. He’s right. And yet a senior bureaucrat in the VA responded to this call to leadership with a 17-point plan, included in the Inspector-General’s report, to fix the problem by creating a raft of new administrative procedures.


There’s a fundamental disconnect between the values of the military and the values of the VA. In the military, integrity is expected; it’s like turning on a faucet. In the VA, integrity is negotiable. Definitions of integrity vary outside the military, and in many cases, personal survival is directly threatened by other pressures – reputation, getting along, security, promotion – which become much more important. What defeated Shinseki, a distinguished soldier and leader, is that on entering the VA he simply assumed that integrity was a given and a core value. Too late, he found out that he was building on sand.

When values are so far apart, language loses its meaning. Shinseki may as well have been speaking in Kurdish. His audience, on the other side of the yawning gulf in values, simply did not understand him. Like Wittgenstein’s lion, our worlds are so far apart that a common language doesn’t help.

Military leaders are taught that people matter more than systems, and that leadership sets behaviors in an organization. The cost of failure is high, but there are also rewards for success, and risk is not seen as an automatically bad thing. In government environments like the VA, risk is never good. The penalties for failure are much bigger than the rewards for success, so leadership is seen as a bad choice. Rules and regulations diffuse responsibility, require no personal commitment, and transfer problems into the safe domain of the intellect. They suit the VA environment much better than leadership values based on the doubtful and risky principle of integrity. Rule-following minimizes conflict; integrity has conflict built in.

Changing values is tough. It’s slow, expensive, and can’t be done online. It requires courage and skin in the game, and can come at a personal cost. Many people in the VA see values-based leadership as silly, unrealistic and naïve. And yet military leaders know that values are the only way to keep organizations from capsizing and becoming a liability the moment people are left to operate on their own.

But as long as we persist in shouting incomprehensible instructions in unknown languages across the great, yawning gap of leadership values, even the best lion is going to stay in the wilderness.

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