[February 25, 2015] It was recently revealed that the U.S. Veterans Administration Secretary made false claims about his military service – specifically that he was a member of the elite U.S. Special Forces (SF). A graduate of West Point Military Academy, Secretary Robert McDonald was never in the SF. All leaders should take a lesson from this event.
Brought to light by the HuffingtonPost.com1, Secretary McDonald has apologized. However, it is revealing to other senior leaders that people with great responsibility would “exaggerate” their military record. Unfortunately, this was a small lie but a lie nevertheless and runs completely counter to what military personnel are taught and to what they aspire. There is something attractive about embellishing one’s military record or creating it outright … and that attractiveness is profit through prestige or money.
Fortunately, there are many who have the mission of exposing those who do this. Stolen Valor is one of the original organizations that helps investigate possible fraud and the people there worked hard to get the 2013 Stolen Valor Act passed. With so many who exaggerate their service or make it up, why do so many senior leaders keep making this mistake? Frankly, they do it for the prestige since money is rarely a factor and because we live in a society that respects and admires our military.
Sometimes the distortions are small and inconsequential but when senior leaders are involved we hold them to a higher standard regardless. When the honor of our military is at stake there is a greater chance of both of someone risking a lie and of being discovered. It matters not if the senior leader exaggerates or lies outright or whether the effect is large or small. Our politicians seem to have some dispensation (reflected in their low trustworthiness) except when the military is involved. Brian Williams, NBC News Anchor, just discovered that lying about events involving our military can damage your reputation and livelihood.
Our military members are intolerant of their own who embellish their records and will take action to stop it and punish the guilty. Not so with others outside their sphere of influence. That’s where organizations like Stolen Valor help. Escaping their gaze is difficult and they never forget. A cruise through some of these organizational websites shows us names of the guilty, photographs, and descriptions of the “lies.”2
Warning to leaders … be brutally honest in all matters, pay no attention to how politicians bend the truth, and always – yes, always – tell the truth and expose any lie. This is a point that should resonate to most who believe in authentic leadership.
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 Here is a short list of organizations that help expose the guilty: