Calibrating moral compasses - Joe Willis at WinX Chicago 2017

Magnetic North: Calibrating moral compasses when all hell is breaking lose…

Character Strength, Communications, Inter-Cultural Skills, Leadership

Joe Willis at WinX in Chicago

Below is the video of a talk I did in Chicago in April of 2017.  I shared some of the lessons I learned about calibrating moral compasses.  Especially, when all hell is breaking lose.

So, no shit… there I was…

In the back of a dusty red SUV.  It was the summer of 2004 in Baghdad, Iraq…  Just a few seconds ago I had been in a small trailer doing an interview when a couple of rockets landed somewhere in the distance.  To me though, it seemed at the time, just on the other side of the concrete T-Wall.  Though I’d quickly learn what that was like…

This was my first such experience and I can admit it now – it scared the hell out of me!  But in that moment – I wasn’t willing to.  For the other three who were with me, this had been an almost daily occurrence for far too long.  So, to be brave, I followed their lead – they seemed unfazed, and so I would be too.  That was, until the third one struck and sent a wave of energy through me – you know the kind that makes you nauseas.

For those that haven’t experienced something like this, the closest thing I can think of is the sudden drop on a roller coaster while simultaneously being kicked in the chest.

The trailer rattled and set all the dust free.

This time though… there was absolute silence in the room, raised eyebrows and an unspoken, HMMM…  At about that time I heard a car horn honking outside.   It was that dusty red SUV.  The third rocket landed just on the other side of a small pond a little over 100 feet away.  Odds are, they were targeting the courthouse and its adjacent office trailers – like one I was in.

The Abu Gahrib motion hearings had started and these buildings were likely to draw some high payoff targets.

You remember the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal, right? The prisoners in piles, the dogs barking, the man standing on a box?  The images flashed across the news channels in the spring 2004 shortly after they were dropped off to Criminal Investigators by Specialist, Joe Darby who found them a couple of CDs he barrowed from another Soldier.  Darby, and most of the Soldiers we’d learn the names of were assigned to the 372nd Military Police Company – A reserve company from, Cumberland, Maryland.  Prior to moving to Abu Graighb the company had worked alongside the 1st Marines (MEF) in AL-Hilla.   The members of the organization were proud to serve with one another and proud of the work they had done.   Yet, the walls of a prison just west of Baghdad will forever cast a shadow over an otherwise typical organization and everyone who served there.

And so, there I was, a Staff Sergeant, a few years younger than I am today, a Military Police Investigator… working for the defense team… and riding in the back of a trailblazer with one of the most recognizable faces of the war in Iraq.

But, yes… there I was… 6000 miles and seven time zones away from home and laughing with a perfect stranger about the crazy experience we just had…. It was Charles Graner, one of the soldiers at the center of the ordeal, and he was huddled against the back of the SUV across from me and I was his defense team’s investigator.  In that moment, for the first time I saw him as more than an assignment, he was a person.  A person who’d been in a war zone for far too long.  A person who was exhausted, and worn thin in nearly every way.  Up until this point I had only known him from statements collected by other investigators and of course, the news reports…  Up until that moment, he had only been a name to me, like a villainous character in a story.

But…. For the next seven months, From June of 2004 to January of 2005, everywhere I went, everything I did revolved around him.  I became consumed with my work, traveling to across the world, from Vegas to Wiesbaden, to Bagdad.    In seven months, I interviewed more than 250 witnesses – often spending weeks on the road, collecting thousands of pages of evidence and losing my hair.

No kidding… I had a full head of hair when I started that assignment.  Quick story… I called my grandmother from the hotel one night during the trial and… She said, Joey – she called me Joey, you know you’re goin bald?  She said… I saw it on CNN… No shit… True story.  I’ve been shaving my head ever since – thanks grandma…  Anyway…

I’d return to my home in Virginia for a day or two just long enough to remember what my kids looked like and then head right back out.  Talk about taking work home with us… My dining room became a command post…

And we know how the story ends, right.  Graner, like several of the other junior soldiers accused there were convicted and sent to prison.  And to be clear, nothing I say here today will justify everything they did or absolve them from their individual responsibilities.  Each of us has a moral compass and in the end, we’re solely responsible for our actions.  They did things that should not have been done.  But there is, of course, more to this story, right?  Instead of trying to justify or rationalize.  I wanted to understand how it happened that a small group of Soldiers found themselves so far off course.  And causing such a major incident…

Two consecutive investigations conducted by General officers resulted in similar findings.  Essentially, long before Darby discovered the photos there was a litany of lapses in judgment and ignored warning signs at all ranks.  Leaders from Sergeant to General failed to intervene as things on the ground were sliding down a very slippery slope.   The lack of leadership combined with daily attacks, ambiguous orders and a dense fog of war led to one of the most significant strategic SNAFUs in modern war history.  On the face of which were twelve of the Army’s most junior Soldiers none above the rank of Staff Sergeant.    There were others who were more senior wo were implicated.  But most them who were at the center of the story were very junior.

Let’s talk for just a second about that word SNAFU.  Perhaps you know what it means, but in case you don’t it stands for, Situation Normal – All F’d Up.  You see, had it not been for the pictures, the report and the official investigation the majority of the world would have no clue it ever happened.  As I mentioned before, the fog of war was so thick it was hard to see the line between right and wrong.   There is evidence of grievous misconduct by a select few individuals.  Some were caught and punished and some will wrestle the demons of their bad decisions for the rest of their days.  But by in large, many of the leaders on the ground were truly trying to do the best they could with what they had.

What I Learned

Like I said, throughout my time in that assignment, I interviewed hundreds of people; prisoners who’d been in the facility.  I interviewed Soldiers, and their leaders… I even interviewed their family members and friends.  But I would like to share with you three lessons I learned during those seven months.

  1. They were people… To start with, the more I learned, the more confused I got. As I mentioned before, each person I interviewed became more than just a name in a story.  They were real people.  They had families – I met several of their parents and wives and children.  I met their civilian co-workers and church pastors.  They weren’t some cast in a fictional story, they were Soldiers – just like me.  In fact, the senior ranking person on the night shift was a Military Police Staff Sergeant – just like me… How easy it could have been for our roles to have been reversed… I could have been the supervisor in the prison…  I’d like to think that had I been these things never would have happened.  But how would I know if things were sliding off course?
  2. Bad things happen when we are disconnected. That brings me to the second lesson.  I had completely immersed myself in the investigation – obsessing about finding all of the facts – no matter how hard I had to look.  When I wasn’t traveling I was pouring over statements, or digging through gigibytes of data on CDs, or I was reading manuals and researching other history of similar incidents.  All the while becoming more and more detached from the people who closest to me.  On one hand I was enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  I was a 27-year old Staff Sergeant with only 8-years of service under my belt working with the kind of autonomy career Soldiers could only dream of.  I had blanket TDY orders.  That meant I didn’t need command approval to travel.  My boss was a lawyer in Iraq.

Gradually, I found myself becoming disconnected from what I had known for the previous 8-years of my career… In some ways, the previous 27-years of my life.

I would check in with my unit in Virginia about once a month.  About as often as I’d spend any time with my family.  One night, somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas it all caught up with me.  I was obsessed with trying to discover the truth about what happened a year ago and 6,000-miles away…  I was exhausted and burnt out.  I hadn’t slept well in months, I was in the worst shape I’ve ever been in physically, mentally, emotionally… I was hearing stories of horrific things and wrestling to make sense of it all.. I was doing all I could to stay strong morally.

I was sitting on the floor with a friend and I asked, “Is it even possible? Is it even possible to be the same person at home as I am at work?”   No one knew how much of a tole this was taking on me.  In fact, this is the first time I’ve ever rally talked about it.  I drew three circles in the corners of a piece of paper and wrote the words, Family, Work, and Friends in each one.  Then drew a heart in the middle – in that wide-open space between them.  I said, this is how I feel.  I have no connection between who I really am and any of these three things.  When I put all of myself into any one of these the others start to fade away.  I feel like I can’t be 100% ever.  I flipped the paper over and drew a Venn Diagram and wrote the same three words in each of the circles, Family, Work, Friends… And this time, drew the heart where they overlapped.  This is what I want!  I want this sort of balance.  I want it to be OK to be the same person no matter what I’m doing.  This was the first rendition of what I call the Venn Leader model.    And it was the product of, for the lack of a better term… A breakdown.  I had distanced myself so much from everyone that no one would have even thought to ask how I was doing.  Because whenever they saw me – I could fake it.  I could smile and say, “Things are Great!”  Hell, I was producing results and had a dream job.  And had anyone noticed enough to ask, I had detached myself to such a point that I wouldn’t have been honest anyway.   I learned that when we’re disconnected… Bad things happen.  The common denominator between what I was experiencing and what I was learning about the guards in the prison was a lack of authentic connection.  A departure from our core and into a single dimension of our lives.

  1. Ethics training isn’t an event… And there’s the third thing I learned… I’ve reflected on that time nearly every few days for the last 13-years. Prior to 2004, and working one of the hardest assignments of my life I had very little real training on values and ethical decision making.  I was seeing the bad all around me and trying to remind myself that I really was a good person – and trying to do good work.  The Army had, “the army values” for a few years prior.  These were a set of seven core values that we should all posses.  But they really weren’t emphasized the way they are now.  And to be honest, culture is what culture does… some of the organizations I served in contradicted my understanding of what those values were supposed to represent – a story for another day.   It wasn’t until several years after Abu Ghraib and a few other incidents that the Army developed the profession of arms campaign.  The campaign is spearheaded by the Center for the Army Profession and Ethic (or CAPE) which is headquartered at the United States Military Academy.  They developed a wide variety of training resources that put the profession and its associated concepts of Professional Identity and the Professional Ethic at the forefront of doctrine and training programs.   I learned more than a decade ago that ethics training can’t be an event.  It can’t be a policy or a poster… If it’s to be integrated into a culture It has to be integrated into everything we do.

So, with the short-time remaining I’d like to leave you with a couple of thoughts…  As I was interviewing many of the leaders in various positions throughout the prison a few common themes continued to emerge.  I won’t share exactly which leaders said what – but you can find their statements online.  The common theme was that they didn’t spend a lot of time where their people were – especially with the people on night shift.


If You’re a Leader, Take Action!

Calibrating moral compasses isn’t an easy task..

First, if you’re in a leadership position, put your fingers on the pulse of your agency.  It starts with one simple concept, be where they are, when they are and the leader they need you to be.  I’m not saying to micro-manage them – but ask yourself, how long has it been since I spent time where the troops are when they think no one is looking.  See them in their most real and authentic times.  As a career leader, I truly believe they’ll reassure your faith in them more often than not.  I also believe you’ll reassure their faith in you as someone who’s willing to go where they when they are.  I believe a leader’s magnetic north should always be, “Be where they are, when they are, and be the leader they expect me to be.”   We call this, management by walking around.

Second, do Assessments; As leaders, we need to keep our finger on the pulse of our organization.  Another ways of doing this is with an organizational assessment.  Lately in the news I’ve heard a lot more more and more about agencies having them done.  But who’s tool is it?  Often, we hear about unions or advisory boards doing them… Stop it… If you’re in a leadership role of any organization, but especially one in the law enforcement profession.  Do organizational your own assessments.  Don’t let anyone surprise you with the data.  Ask the hard questions, I’ve done hundreds of these at this point in my career and will gladly help any organization who truly wants to know how they’re doin.  More importantly agencies that do them need be transparent with your findings and do something with them.  One more thought on assessments – 360s.  A 360 is an assessment is a tool that allows seniors peers and subordinates to evaluate a single person in the organization.  If you’re not doing these – stop waiting.  This sort of candid feedback is priceless!

And Lastly, as I said a few minutes ago, each of us has a moral compass and calibrating that can be incredibly difficult, especially when all hell is breaking lose around us.  But it’s not impossible.  After my experience in that strange and twisted story that was Abu Ghraib and reflecting on it for more than a decade I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s an anchored connection in each of those three domains that keep our moral compass pointing in the proper direction. So one final thought.  Reflect on the five people you associate with most often.  And then ask yourself these questions for each of them… Who are they, I mean really… what do they ebelieve and why do they believe it?  How are they?  Don’t accept the answer of fine, but imagine one of your five is sliding off course, or feeling disconnected the way I was… Would you notice?  And finally, perhaps most importantly – what do they really truly want?  In those dark time the answer to this question can be the light we need to find our way out, and having a friend who knows the answer might be the only light we can find to calibrate our compass….

Thank you.