Honor and Duty

The responsibility bestowed on leaders should be bound by integrity.

The Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David, 1784 (public domain - Wikipedia)

"Waste no more time in arguing what a good man should be. Be one." — Marcus Aurelius, 161


Years ago, in one of my first professional jobs, I had a colleague who made an observation that has stayed with me to this day.

I don't remember the exact situation that brought it about, but he said to me, "You know what impresses me about you, Monty? I see so many people complaining about things, but you don't sit around complaining. You take action."

I've considered that remark over the years, and it's at the core of my sense of integrity: if a person is aware that something wrong and  has the power to make a change, I respect them for taking action rather than whining about the situation.

Leaders serve by virtue of the power that they're given. And, as the phrase goes that can trace its roots to the Bible, with great power comes great responsibility.


"Criticism is necessary and useful; it is often indispensable; but it can never take the place of action, or be even a poor substitute for it." — Theodore Roosevelt, 1894


That means when a leader is aware of a situation over which he or she has control, they are in a position to do something about it. In fact, they are duty-bound to react.

One reaction is simply to do nothing. Just wait it out, see what the public outcry is, and either take the heat or eventually capitulate with some feeble response.

The alternative is to take action. Given that leaders are aware of their resources, of the impact their decisions make, and of the morale that they inspire by doing the right thing, their actions speak volumes about what they prioritize. They indicate a code of honor.

We don't hear the words duty and honor being used much any more, do we? Not outside of the military, anyway. The U.S. Department of Defense has core values that it expects out of its personnel: "duty, integrity, ethics, honor, courage, and loyalty."

These are values that make up what we recognize as character. We expect our leaders to have character and to act in ways that create trust.


"I am no longer good through deliberate intent, but by long habit have reached a point where I am not only able to do right, but am unable to do anything but what is right." — Seneca, 65


Honor. Duty. Trust. These precepts should be lodestars—guiding principles for how we act in our private lives and in our careers. And yet…

Recently we learned that John Bolton's forthcoming memoir The Room Where It Happened indicates that the former National Security Advisor witnessed multiple instances of misconduct by the president. And yet, given the opportunity to testify during the impeachment hearings, Bolton chose to remain silent.

Facebook has been no stranger to criticism and has continually done things to erode trust rather than to build it. Most recently, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan (majority shareholders, with Zuckerberg impervious from discipline or termination) said they were "disgusted by President Trump's divisive and incendiary rhetoric" during the protests.

And yet Zuckerberg continues to allow him to post divisive and even untrue content on Facebook. If only he was in a position to be able to do something about it. But it seems to be part of the brand at Facebook to simply turn away from unpleasant truths and embrace that which profits the company.


"It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race"
— Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1842


Facebook's own internal research in 2018 stated “our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness. If left unchecked,” Facebook would feed users “more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention & increase time on the platform.”

What did Facebook do? It shut down efforts to make the site less divisive.

Honor and duty. What honor is there at Facebook? What duty do they have to anyone other than their shareholders?

We have every right to expect accountability out of our leaders.

President Harry Truman famously had "The buck stops here" displayed on his desk.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, when he was Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, prepared for a possible failure in Operation Overlord at Normandy, penning a note that he hoped he would never have to send: "If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone."

That willingness to accept responsibility is the very definition of integrity.

With recent protests over racial inequality, we're finding ourselves at a major inflection point for society, and that includes brands as well.

Earlier this year, Land O' Lakes dropped their logo that depicted a Native American woman. Now Quaker Oats is eliminating Aunt Jemima, a brand that was established in 1889 featuring a black woman who was originally dressed as a minstrel character.

In the 1970s, the American chain restaurant Sambo's (which was an amalgamation of the names of its founders, Sam Batttistone and Newell Bohnett) faced backlash, as its name was reminiscent of the very dated book The Story of Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman (1899). They reluctantly began to move away from it, but the damage was done and its more than 1,100 locations in 47 states began to close. As of this month, the last remaining restaurant—the original location, now owned by Battistone's grandson—is changing its name.

Whether it's renaming a restaurant, rebranding a racially-insensitive product, or removing monuments to Confederate leaders from public spaces, we're seeing leaders who recognize their responsibility and are taking action that is within their power.

There is a contingent of the population who see this as capitulating to political correctness, or "giving in" to the demands of a vocal minority. They fight for the status quo, ignoring the negative impact that these racial stereotyped representations may have to portions of our society. The underlying assumption is that social reform isn't possible, because human nature is inherently limited.

As much as I like to point out how human nature is constant, there comes a time when we must recognize the need for change. Nor are we fixed in a certain morality; we've seen society update its expectations over the centuries, from the Emancipation Proclamation and the 14th Amendment to the Civil Rights Act, and more.

Each of us has a moral code, and that's what defines our integrity. But society operates with a sense of group morality, which involves judgement, shame and exclusion as well as kindness. We may think we're limited in our ability to evolve our morality, but the speed at which we're seeing cultural change backed by a desire for ethics and integrity is astonishing.

According to Allen Buchanan, Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Law at Duke University, "Humans have possessed moral capacities for many millennia, possibly even hundreds of thousands of years, and yet inclusivist morality has emerged only in the most recent eye-blink of human history."

Which brings us back to leadership.

Those in power—those with the ability to make a change—have a responsibility to take action when they can. To ignore it is to invite scorn and distrust.

To embrace the opportunities and seek a better, brighter option for all stakeholders is what separates the courageous from the cowardly.

Honor and duty. The backbone of character.

The building blocks of leadership.

"Much has been given us, and much will rightfully be expected from us. We have duties to others and duties to ourselves; and we can shirk neither. We have become a great nation, forced by the fact of its greatness into relations with the other nations of the earth, and we must behave as be seen as a people with such responsibilities." — Theodore Roosevelt, 1905


Timely: Present Tense

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.”
— Robert W. Service, 1907

Snapchat barred President Trump from its high-profile Discover section, making Mark Zuckerberg increasingly isolated in his decision to not act against the president. (Business Insider)

The NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights released a report that said Facebook’s content moderation efforts are "grossly inadequate." (Venture Beat)

A call for marketing leaders to reconsider advertising on Facebook and to reallocate that money toward more meaningful purposes. (AdWeek)


Timeless: For the Curious Mind

“The supreme quality of a leader is unquestionable integrity." — Dwight D. Eisenhower

Little was known about the mystery disease that was ravaging the ancient kingdom of Mari. But King Zimri-Lim knew the key to stopping it was social distancing — and no small amount of patience. The King Who Ordered a Social Quarantine to Flatten the Curve 4,000 Years Ago. (Narratively)

Have you noticed more people forcefully stating their unwillingness to wear masks during the pandemic? Our sense of altruism is outstripped by our fierce individualism. I couldn't help but be reminded of Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, who managed to avoid all responsibilities by simply replying, "I would prefer not to." It's at this juncture of duty and preference, of reason and the utter lack of it, where American exceptionalism shows itself. (Lapham's Quarterly)


What an appropriate time to reflect on William Wordsworth's "Ode To Duty," written in 1807. (Poetry Foundation)

To humbler functions, awful Power!
I call thee: I myself commend
Unto thy guidance from this hour;
Oh, let my weakness have an end!
Give unto me, made lowly wise,
The spirit of self-sacrifice;
The confidence of reason give;
And in the light of truth thy Bondman let me live!


Recommended Listening / Reading

"When Duty whispers low, Thou must,
The youth replies,
I can." — Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1867

🎧  You think you know the story, or maybe you don’t. But Watergate was stranger, wilder, and more exciting than you can imagine. What did it feel like to live through the scandal that brought down President Nixon? Find out on Slow Burn, an eight-episode podcast miniseries hosted by Leon Neyfakh

📘 In You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most, the faculty of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard University takes you to the front lines of some of the toughest decisions facing our nation's leaders-from how to mobilize during a hurricane or in the aftermath of a bombing to halting a raging pandemic. They also take readers through the tough decision-making inside the world's largest companies, hottest startups, and leading nonprofits.


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