Why Integrity Matters - guest post

The following is an article and book excerpt from Commander Kirk Lippold, USN (Ret.), a presenter at our annual conference for Premier agents.

Integrity. It is a very simple word with incredible power and long-reaching impact. Businesses love to list it as one of their top priorities and a benchmark for customer relations and conduct. The military considers it a core value; lives are at stake and to not understand the meaning of the word is often tragically measured in terms of lives.

As the Commanding Officer of USS Cole when al Qaeda terrorists attacked it on October 12, 2000, the word integrity took on a whole new level of meaning for me. That morning, everything that was important in my world sat on my desk in the daily grind of what needed to be done to run a ship and crew as we prepared for routine operations in the Middle East. In a singular moment in time, my priorities became very straightforward, even simple: What did I have to do to save my ship from sinking and keep my crew alive?

Many people over time have asked for a good definition of what integrity means. The most common definition is doing the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason, even if no one is looking. That definition suffices for a broad swath of what most people in the military and in business encounter in their day-to-day work. For me, however, that definition, in light of what happened on Cole, seemed better suited as a good definition for ethics, not integrity. 

When you look at the high standard of what integrity should mean, it has to define more than just ethics. Being ethical is a common standard; having integrity means to do all those things associated with ethics but doing them regardless of the consequences. 

Regardless of the consequences. That’s a tall order and one not to be taken lightly. When you hold your ground to do what’s right, it will have far-reaching professional and personal consequences on your life and your business. In the end, however, maintaining that highest standard of behavior will always work out for the better. 

In the days following the attack, the actions of the crew and me as Commanding Officer would become the focal point of intense scrutiny. A $1 billion national asset had been attacked, 17 sailors were dead, and 37 wounded in the first successful attack on a U.S. ship by enemy action since the Vietnam War. Grieving families and the American people deserved answers. 

While I can in no way predict each and every crisis and its circumstances for every business, the following modified excerpt from my book, Front Burner – Al Qaeda’s Attack on the USS Cole, best describes what adhering to that unwavering standard of integrity can mean for one’s future.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and the U.S. Navy were each conducting investigations into the attack. Pointed questions were being asked and during the course of those first few days, the Navy’s leadership pondered whether it was in the service’s best interest to allow me to remain in command. My future hung in the balance. On the ninth day following the attack, the Fifth Fleet Commander, a 3-star Navy Vice Admiral visited the ship with several dignitaries. 

After the dignitaries’ departure, the admiral and I went for a short walk. “I need to speak with you privately for a few minutes,” he said. When we were alone and sitting near the ship’s small boats, he said, “Kirk, your crew has been through a lot this past week and I would like you to consider something. The Navy has assembled a team of about a hundred people from Norfolk who have volunteered to come over here and relieve your crew. Most have served on guided-missile destroyers and are familiar with this type of ship. Now, anyone you think you need to keep the ship going will stay behind, but I would like you to consider allowing half or more of your crew to go home.”

I leaned forward on my elbows, my hands clasped in front of me, my chin dropped into my chest as I stared at the non-skid deck that had suddenly become a sea of intense gray ridges and valleys. Inside I knew I had to stay absolutely calm, but I was in total disbelief. Everyone knew the crew had been through a lot and the emotional toll was tremendous, but without warning, the world collapsed around me again. All I could think to myself was, “This is the Commander of the Fifth Fleet, a vice admiral in the United States Navy, and he’s asking me to allow my crew to abandon ship because what we’ve been through has been ‘hard’ on them!?” I was utterly astounded that the Navy’s leadership would even consider such a thing. The historical roots of the Navy clearly meant nothing to the admirals running the Navy today. They appeared ready to make decisions that flew in the face of generations of sacrifices by others who had also suffered at the hands of the enemy. The leaders and commanding officers throughout the history of the Navy, from John Paul Jones to Chester Nimitz, would never have even contemplated such a decision, and I wasn’t ready to, either.

I was on thin ice. How and what I said next to the admiral would probably make the difference whether or not the crew stayed with their ship. Slowly, carefully, and with great emphasis, I looked up directly into his eyes and said, “Admiral, I could not disagree with you more. This crew saved this ship, this crew saved their shipmates; and, this crew, as a crew will get
Cole out of Aden and onto Blue Marlin; then as a crew we will go home. Together.”

Now it was the Admiral’s turn to think about what had just been exchanged between us. He paused, looked down at the deck himself for few seconds; then, as if to redeem himself in the eyes of history, he looked at me and with a confident tone, said, “Ok, you’ve got it.”

Longstanding Navy tradition held that no crew surrendered to the enemy or abandoned their ship without a good fight or unless it was absolutely impossible to keep the ship afloat. This was best memorialized at the Battle of Lake Erie when Captain James Lawrence, who was mortally wounded while furiously battling a British frigate, cried out, “Don’t give up the ship.” History was about to cast its shadow on us. The crew of
Cole and I had fought to keep our ship afloat from the moment of the attack until now. They could not be seen as giving up because of a lack of courage on the part of the Navy’s leadership or for the sake of political pressure or expediency – it would have cast a pall of shame on the crew and their captain for time immemorial.

In the end, despite some very high-level pressure to get the sailors home immediately, the crew and I stayed on Cole and oversaw its return back to the United States for repair. The ship is still in commission and in Spring 2014 it proudly sailed into New York harbor to participate in the dedication of the 9/11 Memorial and ceremonies at Ground Zero. The crew persevered through an unbelievable tragedy. Today, they are remembered for their heroism, especially in the context of the 9/11 attacks, which brought an undeclared war by al Qaeda into sharp focus for every American.

In the life of any business, every one of you as a leader will invariably face a crisis that will challenge your standard of integrity. Tough decisions, often opposed by those around you, will have to be made. How each of you as leaders face up to that challenge and the standard you hold yourself to first, will define whether you and perhaps even your business survives with its reputation intact. Integrity doesn’t happen in the moment. It is a concept that requires daily thought until it becomes an integral part of your decision-making process and second nature in every aspect of your life. While ethics are the minimum standard in how you do business; integrity sets the bar for how well your business is poised to succeed - regardless of the consequences that challenge it . . . and you!

Commander Lippold was the Commanding Officer of USS Cole (DDG 67) when it was attacked by al Qaeda terrorists in the port of Aden, Yemen, on Oct. 12, 2000. His book, Front Burner – Al Qaeda’s Attack on the USS Cole, recounts the heroism of his crew and the impact of leadership in the ongoing war on terror.

This article is copyrighted and the sole property of Kirk S. Lippold. No part may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission. More information at www.kirklippold.com.

Lippold, Kirk S. Front Burner - Al Qaeda's Attack on the USS Cole (New York: Public Affairs, 2012), 193-195.