LDRSHIP — That Isn’t a Typo
Reflections on the Army Values
Like many organizations, the United States Army has tools to influence the actions of its Soldiers and inspire a sense of camaraderie and commitment. The Army has a mission and vision, a creed, a song, and a motto which changes occasionally (currently Army Strong). The Army has also established a set of values every Soldier is supposed to adopt and “live them every day in everything they do.” But what does that really mean?
I have been a U.S. Army Soldier for over 34 years, 25 of those as a commissioned officer. I completed and instructed numerous leadership courses, all of which included lessons in ethics with connections to the Army Values.
As I noted in a previous essay, our values should serve as a moral gyroscope; they should nudge us to keep our actions and decisions in line with who we want to be and set off blaring alarms when heading significantly off course.
My purpose is not to rehash the countless examples of high-ranking Army leaders acting counter to Army values or such acts I have witnessed. Rather, I want to explore how values get distorted leaving everyone — both in and outside the military — vulnerable to our ego and biases as well as manipulation by others.
I’m focusing on the Army values having worked extensively with them and knowing they are embraced by many outside the military. The Army uses the mnemonic LDRSHIP to help Soldiers remember these values.
Of course, Soldiers who internalize and strive to live these values don’t need a memory aid; while being able to list them doesn’t mean a Soldier is living them daily. The Army Values are:
I won’t include the Army’s description of each value as you can find those here. Instead, I’ll jump into the distortions and how people regularly act counter to these values without realizing it.
Loyalty. Many people, if not most, think of this value in terms of “blind loyalty.” To a degree, that is what the Army wants us to do as Soldiers and what many organizations also want. They want their members to be loyal to the organization even when the organization isn’t acting according to its own values or in the best interests of its members. Many view family Loyalty the same way.
In fact, true Loyalty requires all parties involved to be honest with each other — and brutally honest when necessary. Instead, it is common to turn a blind eye to problems, concerns, and even unethical or immoral behavior.
That is not Loyalty. Ignoring unethical or immoral behavior leads to bigger problems and possibly disaster, and then everyone is complicit in the outcomes.
True Loyalty means standing by comrades, friends, and families, as well as organizations and their leaders, as they work through challenges — but only if they accept responsibility for their part in the challenges.
When a person or organization compromises any of their values, they are being disloyal to members striving to uphold the values. Using Loyalty to manipulate others into accepting or covering up actions adds to the disloyalty.
How does one demonstrate true Loyalty when a family member, friend, colleague, or organization acts illegally, immorally, or unethically? By pointing out the objectionable conduct, why it’s objectionable, and then offering to help as the person or organization makes amends and to be there for support, once they accept responsibility.
Is this easy? Of course not, and that’s why we have to make a conscious effort to know our values and choose to live according to them. This is also key to strengthening our sense of personal worth and power. It is an essential part of protecting ourselves from manipulation.
Could this fracture relationships? Yes, but what damage is that relationship doing to us when we compromise our values to keep it in tact? It creates stress and anxiety and lowers our own self-worth. And at that point, the relationship is already fractured.
Duty. This value is more commonly referred to as Responsibility. It is not distorted so much as misunderstood. If I embrace Duty as a core value, then I must act accordingly within my ability to carry out any Duty or responsibility. It is in that caveat — within my ability — that misunderstandings arise.
We can only be responsible for things over which we have power. That means we cannot be responsible for — we don’t have a Duty to — tasks for which we didn’t have a choice.
Bear in mind, there are countless things we must do over which we don’t have a real choice. The need to do these things stems from the consequences of not doing them, which is much different than being responsible for doing them.
This may be semantics, but it’s a very important distinction. Those with plenty of wealth have a lot of power because their wealth brings many choices; consequently, they have significant Duty or responsibility to ensure those choices align with their values.
Those with little wealth have little power because their choices are so limited. If they want to eat and have clothes and a roof over their heads, they have to take what’s available for work or assistance.
They have far less ability to do things strictly by choice and therefore to be responsible for those things. That might even mean needing to compromise some values just to survive or take care of their family.
It is common to criticize others for not being responsible — not doing their Duty — when a person lacks power and, therefore, can’t be responsible.
Those with adequate wealth — and therefore real power and subsequent responsibility — want those without to “act responsibly” and do their “duty” as a parent/neighbor/citizen/whatever. Yet those “others” — those with limited or really no wealth — are often carrying out all the responsibility they can because they have such limited power.
If we want others to do their Duty and be responsible, we must ensure they have actual power over their choices. And those of us with greater wealth and power must act responsibly (do our Duty) and adhere to our values. I explore the power-responsibility dynamic more deeply in my essay “Power to the Person.”
Respect. The biggest obstacles to following our values are our ego and biases (explored more fully in my essay “How Our Values Could Save the World”). Both provide big challenges to the value of Respect. We all have biases about people; they are unavoidable. How strongly we allow those biases to influence us is a choice.
If we hold the value of Respect, that is, respecting others, it cannot be conditional. Putting conditions on Respect puts one’s biases and ego in charge. Many people say their Respect must be earned. This seems reasonable on the surface but is actually counter to the value of Respect.
The standards for earning this respect will inevitably vary — subconsciously — for each person. Respect will be determined from first impressions (based in biases) with everything else validating that first impression.
Someone truly holding the value of Respect will need to make a conscious effort to maintain their Respect of every person. They must also be open to people redeeming themselves following egregious actions.
That may mean seeking explanations or context for actions deemed offensive or inappropriate rather than condemning the entire person for discrete actions.
Even if our norm is to Respect everyone, our biases will affect our opinion of others. I believe it’s reasonable to lose Respect for some people based on their actions when they are egregious or consistently inappropriate, but I also believe the door must remain open to earning back that Respect, if we claim to hold that value.
Maybe I’m overly optimistic; I believe all but the worst human beings are capable of change and redemption.
Those who perform incredibly heinous acts are in a different category, but we all make mistakes. We should be willing to Respect others who made mistakes but are striving to do better. Knowing there are people whose Respect they could earn might help.
Selfless Service. This may be one of the hardest values to live because it requires personal sacrifice. It literally means putting others ahead of ourselves.
This definitely makes sense as an Army value because every service member swears an oath to defend the United States and the Constitution, and that includes understanding we could die in that defense. All service members are also part of a team and must be prepared to put the team ahead of themselves.
This is similar among many professions such as first responders. During the COVID 19 pandemic, health care workers have had to make this same conscious choice to continue doing their jobs. Many “front-line workers” such as grocery clerks have found themselves in similar positions.
I don’t believe this value suffers distortion or abuse like others because it is pretty clear and straight forward. You put the best interests of others ahead of yourself. It’s hard to fake that except for the few who seek false valor. And some people will dramatize out-of-proportion some “sacrifice” they made, but most can usually see through that.
If anything, this value is used to manipulate people similar to how Loyalty is used. Those with an agenda will call on others to make a sacrifice for some cause or for the “greater good.” If that call comes from a person or organization with whom we’re aligned, we may feel a sense of guilt if we don’t make the “sacrifice.”
Then, even if the activity being supported is counter to our values, we may feel pressure to go along — to make that sacrifice in the name of Selfless Service.
Honor. For the Army, Honor is living the other six values 24/7. One could argue, then, it should be left out, but then the mnemonic wouldn’t work right (LDRSIP?). Honor is also part of the unofficial and ageless military credo “Duty, Honor, Country” so maybe it gets in by default.
Regardless, Honor can be a powerful value for anyone who truly strives to live it in all they do. It does encompass the other Army Values because it’s about always trying to do the right thing (Integrity) for others (Respect, Loyalty) regardless of the cost (Selfless Service, Duty) even in the face of overwhelming circumstances (Personal Courage).
In reality, it is much harder to live with Honor in day-to-day life than in a crisis. In crises, people may act from their humanity and values without much thought. Often, those who are heralded as heroes say they were doing what anyone (or at least most) would have done in the same situation.
On the other hand, in routine times, our biases and habits creep in to influence actions and decisions.
In regular times, we often have to be much more deliberate to keep our values front and center — to act with Honor. Most of us know truly honorable people; those who demonstrate Honor in even the simplest things they do and whom everyone seems to respect. These are people whose moral gyroscope is well-tuned and working properly.
Integrity. This is doing the right things, the right way, for the right reasons. The fictional model for all the values, but especially Integrity, would be Steve Rogers from Captain America: The First Avenger.
While Steve Rogers (Captain America) does break some rules (lying on his military application, disobeying orders to rescue captured soldiers), he does this solely for the right reasons and because they are the only way for him to live his values — that is, to do his part in saving the world from evil. It could be argued the rules he breaks were immoral because they would prevent him from taking these moral actions.
For us in the real world, scripting successful Integrity requires awareness of the two ways it is regularly compromised. The first is allowing the ends to justify the means. This is one of the most pervasive distortions of values in society today.
Nearly our entire political system is an example of this. Our two principal parties regularly violate their platforms and stated principles claiming it is necessary to achieve some greater end. They regularly practice hypocrisy. Those supporting the parties must regularly accept actions and decisions totally counter to their values in hopes of a desired policy outcome.
Yet, it’s not just big things like politics. On a daily basis we make ends-justify-the-means decisions. Many are small like speeding or keeping the excess change the clerk gave us.
There are countless rationale people use for these, but if you do them and then call for holding other people accountable when they break the law or violate some principle, you are being a hypocrite and compromising your integrity.
The real danger is not the small compromises themselves. Rather, they crack open the door for larger compromises and, much worse, they sow seeds for people losing trust in each other. Our actions speak significantly louder than words.
When we compromise our Integrity, others notice and wonder when our compromised Integrity will affect them; when will they become the means sacrificed for some more important end.
Because this has become so pervasive in society, it seems there is no one we can fully trust anymore. It even becomes difficult to trust those closest to us. We may say we trust our closest friends and family, but if we witness ends-justify-the-means acts and statements, then seeds of doubt will be planted.
The second way Integrity is regularly compromised is when words, actions, and decisions are not in sync. Hypocrisy is the counter to Integrity, and it too has become incredibly pervasive, especially in politics.
Elected officials and political parties support laws and take actions counter to their stated platforms or beliefs. Businesses regularly state employees are their most valuable asset while having reams of rules and procedures that demonstrate no real faith in or respect for those employees.
Parents tell children to act responsibly but give them no power over their actions and decisions; they control their children with punishments and rewards rather than showing trust by giving them power to make and learn from mistakes.
Anyone acting with true Integrity has to live the other values. Integrity requires being true to those to whom we’ve given allegiance (Loyalty) and fulfilling our commitments (Duty). Integrity requires treating others with Respect regardless of one’s biases, and it requires living with Honor.
Finally, Integrity may entail drawing on Personal Courage to do what’s right under trying circumstances. Which brings me to the final Army Value.
Personal Courage. This value is regularly distorted by those wanting to be seen as courageous while those who demonstrate clear acts of Courage often deny having done so.
We mostly associate Personal Courage with clearly heroic acts. The person who runs into a burning house to save someone or dives in to save a drowning child or service members facing enemy fire to protect their comrades.
As noted with the value Honor, Personal Courage is more common when there is an immediate physical threat than during day-to-day living or when the “threat” is less clear. The difference stems largely from recognizing and acknowledging what constitutes a true threat.
Physical threats are generally obvious and indisputable, so the corresponding risk and need for courage are as well. Standing up for what’s right from a moral or ethical standpoint can often be less obvious and more easily distorted, and our biases and ego typically lead to these distortions.
When someone stands up for something they truly believe, especially in the face of criticism or ostracism, they are demonstrating Personal Courage.
This includes pointing out when “our” organization, religion, political party, family, friends, etc. are acting counter to our shared values; this includes refusing to go along with decisions and actions counter to our values as well as taking a stand that may cost us financially, professionally, or in our relationships.
Those connected or sympathetic to the group against whom the stand is being taken will often not see it as courageous. Their biases will seek other rationale for the action as their egos protect them from possibly being wrong. They will label the courageous actions as self-serving or even cowardice. In many ways, they prove the Courage of the person standing against them by attacking them and denying their Courage.
Similarly, people distort Courage by claiming it when standing against those who are powerless and against whom they would be expected to stand. Courage requires taking a risk and there is little risk in going along with “our people”, whomever they may be. The risk comes from objectively assessing “our people” and considering they may not always be right or may be acting counter to our values.
Those who question the actions and opinions of groups with whom they’re connected or sympathetic are showing Courage. Those who take a stand when these groups act outside their values and principles are showing even greater Courage. These are people who are demonstrating the value of Personal Courage.
One of the hardest tests of Personal Courage is facing our own biases and ego with a willingness to admit when we are wrong or have done wrong. Similarly, it takes great Courage to forgive those who have wronged us but shown the Courage to admit it and ask forgiveness.
It’s nearly impossible to follow every value completely. We face ethical dilemmas that seem to have no good solutions. When this happens, a person or organization with Integrity must make the best choice from available options and then strive to mitigate the damage — to lessen the fall-out to the greatest extent possible.
This is much like the dilemma of Loyalty when a friend or family member acts inappropriately. Loyalty does not require contributing to or even accepting the inappropriate act; it requires supporting the friend while that friend faces the consequences of or strives to make amends for the act. For Integrity, if a value must be compromised because there is no other option, then mitigation efforts are essential.
In later Marvel movies, Captain America battles through ethical dilemmas as value-based decisions become difficult. He struggles with doing the right thing while remaining loyal to his fellow Avengers. Other Avengers face similar ethical dilemmas with some willingly sacrificing their lives to do what is right — to uphold their shared values. Of course, it’s a lot easier when you’re following a movie script.
It’s much harder in real life and harder still when the consequences are not clear or immediate. At the beginning of the COVID 19 pandemic, communities pulled together to face this completely new and frightening threat, as did states and the country as a whole. Politics and ideologies were largely irrelevant. We were in this together and we would support each other to see it through.
That didn’t last. Soon, nearly everything about the pandemic was politicized and much even weaponized. The values that surfaced at the beginning were quickly subsumed by biases and egos. As such, we have become vulnerable to those who profit from divisiveness. We allow ourselves to be manipulated. And because we see so many others falling back on their biases and egos, we do too.
We have a choice. We can choose to live by our values. We can choose to be a society of values. But that requires reflecting on our values; we must know the values by which we want to live. There are worse places to start than the Army Values, but don’t hesitate to consider others.
Then we must reflect on our biases. We must recognize and account for our biases. We must acknowledge that our biases sometimes cause us to act counter to our values. Then we must be prepared to deliberately put our values ahead of those biases.
We must do the same with our ego. We must recognize and account for our ego when our values show we’re wrong about something we’ve done or said or something we’re about to do or say.
We can only apply these actions to ourselves, but we can hold others accountable. If enough of us act on our values and hold others accountable for actions and decisions counter to our values — to the degree we’re able to hold others accountable — larger scale change will occur. At the very least, we can refuse to go along with or contribute toward actions and statements counter to our values.
Our shared values can overcome the divisiveness tearing our country apart, but only if enough of us choose to live by our values rather than fall victim to our biases, ego, and the manipulation of others.
A Boomer who joined the Army during the Cold War and continues to serve. Kevin spent 30-plus years working in K-12 education as a teacher, administrator, and consultant. His book, Know Power, Know Responsibility, provides the imperatives for a complete redesign of schools and the way to get there.