Leadership Lessons From the Navy Video Scandal

How to lead by example and rally your troops

By now you’ve probably seen clips from the raunchy videos that sunk the career of Navy Capt. Owen Honors. The sacking of the commander of the USS Enterprise offers leadership lessons for managers seeking to rally their troops.

Honors starred in a series of videos, featuring simulated sex acts, racy shower scenes and gay slurs, while he was second-in-command of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier sailing the Persian Gulf during the Iraq War in 2006 and 2007. After videos were released by the Virginian-Pilot newspaper and caused a national stir last week, Admiral John C. Harvey, Jr., head of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, cited Honor’s actions as a “profound lack of good judgment and professionalism.” Harvey has also launched a probe to determine if other senior Navy officials knew about the films.

The captain has since become a digital martyr of sorts, gaining support from thousands of current and retired sailors who claim he shouldn’t be thrown overboard for using humor to boost morale. Others say he was sacrificed on the altar of political correctness. In fact, a Facebook page in his defense gained about 6,000 followers in one day.

Honors may have been trying to lift spirits at wartime, but his job certainly was not to create his ribald version of McHale’s Navy. He put cheap jokes before decorum and dignity. Moreover, he mocked those who found the videos offensive, saying their objections were “sent gutlessly through other channels.”

The crude videos can be a teaching moment for corporate managers about leadership, especially young execs on the rise. Those who engage in such bold but foolish acts will not only potentially sully their companies’ reputation but find themselves on the unemployment line. Managers must have a well-tuned antenna in today’s environment: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported this week that workers in the private sector filed a record number of discrimination charges against employers, up 21% from fiscal 2007. So in these economically strained times, it becomes increasing important for managers to set the proper tone and engage in practices that foster inclusion in the workplace.

BLACK ENTERPRISE has written hundreds of articles on leadership over the years, interviewing some of the nation’s most powerful executives. During times of  peace or turmoil, troops — whether in the military or major companies — respond to courage, intelligence, candor, tenacity and gravitas. One of corporate America’s most celebrated CEOs, Kenneth Chenault steered American Express employees through 9/11 and the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression. In his countless lectures, he has maintained that “what you want to do as a leader is create a trusting relationship with your people . To do that, you have to stand for something.” Another such leader, retired Aetna Chairman and CEO Ronald A. Williams changed a culture executives once described as “poisonous” to a team environment focused on getting things done. Williams stressed values he posted on the company’s walls: “Attack the issue, not the person” and “Assume positive intent.”

Humor can be extremely valuable in building morale but it must serve as a tool to relieve stress and build camaraderie, not a weapon that denigrates team members or torpedoes your organization’s standing. You have to know your audience and venue: a good-spirited joke among a the familiar few tends not to translate among thousands. Just because everyone in the room may laugh, it doesn’t mean some haven’t been offended. And if such remarks or skits have been taped or recorded then the world owns them through the Internet and social media.

It all comes down to judgment and focus. When asked what she learned about leadership, Xerox CEO Ursula Burns once told BE: “It’s all about everyone else. It’s little about you. You have to keep your eyes on what is important.”  True leadership is no laughing matter.

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