“The character that takes command in moments of crucial choices has already been determined. It has been determined by a thousand other choices made earlier in seemingly unimportant moments. It has been determined by all the day-to-day decisions made when life seemed easy and crises seemed far away…the decisions that, piece by piece, bit by bit, developed habits of discipline or of laziness, habits of self-sacrifice or of self-indulgence, habits of duty and honor and integrity—or dishonor and shame.”
President Ronald Reagan once said that character doesn’t just “happen” at times of crisis, it’s constructed bit by bit by seemingly insignificant decisions.
Our character is the compass on which we guide our decisions and our lives. When we have to make decisions, particularly those that involve morals, money, or the mission, we consult our “character compass.” I call it, “checking your moral azimuth,” your compass bearing in life for making decisions.
For a compass to function properly, it must have all its parts. So it is with our internal compass. Our internal compass is both informed by our values and experiences, and bounded by our conscience. We can also learn from others about how they process moral questions. During my time as a student at various military colleges and schools, I had the benefit of hearing a number of senior military and civilian leaders attribute their success in life to balance, or “completeness” as a person. To be a “complete” person, and have a complete compass…and that means balancing the three aspects of your life: mind, body, and spirit. Try to better yourself in each area, and keep all three in balance. Read a book, improve your fitness level, and practice the spiritual expression of your choice. Keep your compass assembled and in balance.
Of course a compass is of no value unless it points north. As Airmen, our “north” is our commitment to the Air Force Core Values: Integrity, Service, and Excellence. Living up to these lofty values requires a strong character…they demand a healthy person and a good moral compass. Airmen, even the most junior among us, are often responsible for lives and property in order to be ready and able to complete the missions assigned to us. We also have to have the strength of character to uphold our Service’s values and effectively lead others. Integrity must be the hallmark of who we are…we cannot afford any breach in trust that undermines our teamwork. Service before Self is just as demanding as maintaining integrity…particularly now while we are at war. Our fellow warriors, Airmen and others, depend on us to put the good of the country and our units above ourselves. Excellence is not only the standard of what we seek to achieve, it is the expectation of those we serve. We all have the right to expect mission success and high personal standards from each other. This is more than technical excellence; it also means that we hold ourselves to high personal standards as well. If we’re doing something that we wouldn’t want posted on the squadron bulletin board, its not likely healthy behavior.
Although the language is likely different, the application of a healthy person coupled with a strong character with an informed conscience is not unique to the Air Force. Your “north” might be your personal, family, or organizational values. The point is less about which particular “north” where your compass points and more to have a “north” in the first place. Without some external orientation it’s far too easy to allow ourselves to waver from our values; to rationalize any behavior or decision. In the words of the Talented Mr Ripley, “No one thinks they’re a bad person.” You might also define the facets of the human person differently than I did. Whether you define a person as Mind, Body, and Spirit or something else, it’s important to maintain a balance in order to keep your “compass” assembled and healthy.
Finally, we have to be on a good azimuth (the right compass heading) when making decisions about our jobs or our lives. From making decisions on personal finances, to personal risk management, to the discipline to follow that same checklist for the umpteenth time, choosing the correct moral azimuth will ensure we make the right decision every time no matter what the particular circumstances. We also owe it to our teammates to take care of each other, to be a friend to one another, and to step up and lead when it’s our turn. As warriors, our country depends on us to get the mission done, and as citizens and leaders the right azimuth ensures we get our personal mission done safely and effectively. That said, as much as we try to take care of each other, no one can make decisions for another person. Each person must have a well developed enough sense of personal responsibility to make good decisions for himself.
Whether its developing the next business opportunity or a making low-level bomb run, “checking your compass” is an accepted part of our habit pattern. Its just as important to check our moral azimuth–and that’s a skill for success in life as well as mission.