Opinion
Col. Rich Morales (right) with members of his battalion in Iraq. Photo courtesy of Rich Morales.

A Question of Values: Colonel Rich Morales ’99 on Integrity as an Organizational Foundation

In this new series, leaders tell stories about drawing on their core values in critical moments. We talked to U.S. Army Colonel Rich Morales ’99 about the complexity of integrity and its roles in leadership and learning.



Integrity is often viewed as an individual virtue. But it is also a key component to creating efficient, high-performing organizations. We talked with U.S. Army Colonel Rich Morales ’99 about the power and complexity of integrity. He described how it plays a key role for him when navigating nuanced situations—when facts, feelings, mission, and wishes all mix together in critical moments that call for the utmost discipline.
 
Morales is a professor at West Point and head of the Department of Systems Engineering. He has held White House appointments in two presidential administrations and served multiple combat tours, including commanding a combined arms battalion of over a thousand soldiers responsible for security operations in a third of Baghdad, with a population of two million.

 
Integrity is one touchstone value for me. Integrity is different than always being right or always making the right calls; it’s being honest, having a strong moral compass, and understanding the importance and, frankly, the empowerment of making sure your word is your bond. Integrity requires our actions to align with our espoused values in all situations. Part of integrity could be honesty—that I mean what I say, even when the consequences for being truthful could be bad or uncomfortable. 
 
I commanded a task force spread across a third of Baghdad. There were about two million citizens, and only 1,000 of us providing security and conducting operations with the local forces. I had to know that if a subordinate commander said, “Boss, I am at this corner doing x, y, or z,” that I could trust their word. Then, I could with no hesitation turn around and direct operations somewhere else. If this person hadn’t, for instance, coordinated with local forces or secured a position as they reported they had, I was going to put somebody else in harm’s way. If that person lacked integrity, I would doubt their report and doubt how I should reallocate resources. That is the power of integrity—leaders can make decisions faster and with more confidence because of the trust built through integrity. 
 
It sounds easy on paper until you are immersed in the situation and facing the pressures of real-time operations and you must grapple with the application of integrity. In a military context, the most obvious example to me of the value of integrity is a tactical scenario in combat—if you get things wrong, you’re likely to get somebody hurt.
 
What happens when you’re conducting a patrol and facing the uncertainty that comes with interacting with a local population? You are conducting the mission “by the book,” but suddenly one of your soldiers is shot by someone hiding in the population. You now face a challenge. Do you go back in, guns blazing? No. We develop teams that can exercise restraint, that understand that our actions have strategic consequences. They understand that they are in a dangerous, complicated, and emotional war zone. Integrity in this specific case requires you to maintain perspective and ethically separate the villagers from the insurgents. If you compromise your integrity by using indiscriminate force against the population, then you’ve compromised your and your organization’s values. 
 
We teach our cadets at West Point that winning is important, but how you win is equally important. West Point’s Honor Code says, “A Cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”  Without character, leaders fail. My point is not that the Army has mastered integrity—we’ve got folks who color outside of the lines of what I’ve just described, but given the nature of our work, it is rare. As a whole we work to embrace simple principles, grounded in integrity, that permeate our organizational cultures and help us operate more effectively day to day and in extreme environments. 
 
Some would argue that example that I shared doesn’t map to conditions outside of the military. I suggest that all organizations and leaders face uncertainty and must make decisions based on levels of trust within the organization. While the risks may not include someone’s physical well-being, the costs of failure could be someone’s livelihood or a major business failure. My experience tells me that if an organization starts with a questionable ethical climate, a toxic interpersonal climate, and leaders who lack integrity, then the organization will fail under pressure. Integrity won’t suddenly develop when times are tough—it is built over time before the pressure arrives. 
 
Leadership is all about people. You have to have empathy for the folks you lead. You have to understand that we’re all going through something. Everybody’s got rocks in their rucksack; some are just heavier than others. Some on your team will instantly understand your norms, others will struggle, and yet another group must find another place to work because they lack integrity and character. 
 
For instance, if you are relatively new to the military and you make a mistake, we are going to coach you. We are going to say, “Hey, look, I don’t know how it was where you grew up, but on this team we don’t lie to each other.  We don’t disrespect others. Your actions are a reflection of all of us and you should know that honesty is a big part of what it is to be a member of this unit and to wear this uniform. So if you don’t change your behavior, then you can’t be part of our team.”
 
If your operating approach to development is “none shall pass”—you can’t make one mistake or you’re out—then you will fail. Successful people and organizations own their mistakes. You have to build a common understanding of integrity and have teammates see for themselves the empowering benefits of making integrity a cornerstone value in your culture. To preserve that powerful culture, make sure that you’re coaching, that you’re mentoring, and that you’re listening for opportunities to highlight the value of doing the right thing, even when things are tough.

Head, Department of Systems Engineering, West Point