Commentary by Lt. Col. Jean Eisenhut
3rd Space Operations Squadron commander
Our core values, “integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do,” are well-known by each enlisted, officer and civilian member of the Air Force. These attributes were instituted by our top civilian and military leaders almost 15 years ago to serve as the foundation for conducting our unique Air Force mission.
There is an order to our core values, and integrity in the first slot is intentional. Integrity is a tenet that we must thread through each decision and plan that we contemplate and execute as Air Force members.
Encarta dictionary lists three definitions for integrity; first, “possession of firm principles — the quality of possessing and steadfastly adhering to high moral principles or professional standards.” This is what I and many think when pondering our first core value. Second is “completeness — the state of being complete or undivided, as in the territorial integrity of a nation.” This is integrity of an institution or structure, where we can rely on it not to deteriorate. And third, “wholeness, the state of being sound or undamaged — public confidence in the integrity of the voting process.” Similar to the Air Force’s promotion system, we can trust in the integrity of that process.
The combination of these definitions conveys the idea of trust in a process or system, supported by the standards of each person involved. Conversely, a compromise in a person’s integrity undermines processes, structures and even institutions.
What does it mean to compromise your integrity? Two broad answers emerge for me. First is the clear-cut breach of integrity. Lying, changing documentation after the fact, stealing — instances we easily recognize as breaches of integrity. These clearly jeopardize our mission and are not in accordance with our core values.
The second category can be more difficult to recognize, however it is just as harmful in eroding an institution’s integrity. This category could be termed “unintentional losses of integrity.” Two examples in this category include pencil-whipping and short-cuts. Each can arise in spite of good intentions, where we are prioritizing numerous taskings while trying to accomplish the mission.
How might an “unintentional integrity loss” play out? For example, we have processes we check time and time again. Those checks have always been fine and today we are running short on time. On this occasion we decide to initial off, or pencil-whip, without actually running the process. If there are no repercussions, our pencil-whipping habit is reinforced making it easier to do again and next time it could result in a mistake. Depending on our mission that mistake can undermine operations on orbit, degrade aircraft maintenance accuracy or leave a live round in a cleared weapon.
Likewise and by design, short-cuts eliminate checks or bypass a standard procedure. We may find ourselves running close to a deadline and craft a short-cut that on the surface gets the job done. However, by trimming out required procedures and checks, we are left with a superficial result that affects the overall integrity of our unit or institution. Competing requirements fueled by mission need can lead to formulating plans (short cuts or pencil-whipping) that may get us to the finish line, but do not satisfactorily pass through an integrity filter — if we had stopped to check.
So, how can you combat these “unintentional” losses of integrity; or simply stated, how can you employ and exercise integrity in the day to day? Develop integrity checks! The most immediate check is to listen to your gut. If an idea or plan is not sitting well with you, there is a good chance it is not passing your integrity filter. One of my former squadron commanders often quoted a phrase he saw at the Pentagon, “Do things right, do the right things.” I’ve changed these imperatives into integrity check questions — will this plan allow us to do things right? Is this idea or option the right thing to do?
Another way to check the integrity of your plan is to ask this question: If our organization enacted this for each and every similar situation, would the mission be supported? If not, the current plan probably shouldn’t pass your integrity filter.
Your integrity checks may include a trusted co-worker, mentor or friend. Someone outside your situation can often offer a fresh perspective and help you see what may be obscured by the busyness of your day. If you are contemplating a short-cut, determine if your answers to the following questions pass your integrity checks — Why does the short-cut seem feasible? Will this plan compromise standards? Why haven’t we already implemented this as the regular process?
Integrate your integrity checks into your daily operations and activities. The times to be on guard for unintentional integrity losses are when there seems to be too much to do. Correcting the results of a poor decision will take more of your time than doing it right in the first place.
An unintentional loss of integrity is still that — a loss of integrity. It undermines the overall integrity of our service and is avoidable. I charge each of us to develop our integrity checks and run our daily decisions and plans through those checks. If you recognize an integrity issue, intentional or not, take action to correct it. In doing so, we will live out integrity first as our first core value and ensure we are upholding our commitment to defend and serve this nation as Air Force professionals.