What’s More Important than Rules in the Military?

Military organisations around the world have developed insights into cultivating principals in their workforces—your organisation can benefit from this strategy, too.

Military organisations around the world have developed insights into cultivating principals in their workforces—your organisation can benefit from this strategy, too.

As companies scale, it becomes increasingly important for them to recognise their responsibilities to their various stakeholders—their employees, customers and society in general. This quickly becomes a complicated exercise, especially for larger organisations with many stakeholders that possess divergent interests. 

Insights into the best ways to navigate this complexity in an ethically-minded way come from a perhaps surprising place: the military. The field of military ethics yields a number of important findings, as militaries have, over the decades, developed robust systems for internal ethical decision-making. 

What are military ethics?

Many people assume that legal compliance is the same as ethical behaviour. Rules, whether they be legal ones or institutional ones, are understandably important in a military environment, but the rules can only take you so far. This is why militaries around the world are also values-based institutions rather than just rules-based ones.   

Military institutions around the world rely on a foundation of virtue ethics that would have been familiar to historical philosophers like Aristotle. The focus is on developing persons of character who can be trusted to do the right thing because they have internalised certain virtues. The more we do the right thing, the more it becomes habit and therefore part of the stable disposition that informs one’s character. Different armed services around the world provide institutional articulation of expected behaviour in the form of their values and standards.  

While each is unique, there is also a huge similarity between the values of military organisations around the world—for good reason. There are certain types of behaviours that are consistent with military service. This tends to mean a focus on the bigger picture—mission, team or country above oneself, for example, or the courage to do the right thing despite personal cost. These institutions hope that, by fostering such behaviours, and promoting those who consistently demonstrate them, they will end up with the right people in the right places—people who will be able to make the right decision even in the most extreme of situations.

Military ethics in the organisation  

The difference between compliance and ethics is important. Simply following rules will get you so far, but knowing what the right thing to do when the rules are unclear is essential. These are challenges for military but also business institutions around the world. 

Determining appropriate courses of action in employing an emerging and as yet unregulated technology, or market opportunity in a sector that simply didn’t exist when the rules were written, can very easily take an organisation into places that it comes to regret later on, once the rules catch up with behaviours that were clearly wrong even if the law was not written in such a way as to regulate it at the time—and institutional reputations are shredded.   

Having a strong ethical foundation that can help guide appropriate behaviour in addition to a firm appreciation of the legal context is essential if opportunities are to be grasped without inadvertently doing long-term damage to people, and institutions. Especially in decentralised contexts, where individual employees must make on-the-spot moral decisions, it’s critical that employees have a firm understanding of their organisation’s guiding principles.  

Building a company culture of ethics 

The fact of the matter is that, as the world becomes increasingly complicated and technically-oriented, the number of moral gray areas is multiplying. Organisations that have the agility to react in real time to new situations will have a clear edge over those that do not.  

Many businesses also have stated values. If taken seriously, they are more than just a slogan on a brochure—they represent (or should represent) how the organisation sees itself and how it does what it does—what it values, and also, what it rewards. Rewarding the behaviour you want to see is as, if not even more, important than applying discipline to prevent the behaviour you want to eliminate, and will ultimately promote the behaviour you are seeking. These issues are just as true at the systemic level as they are at the individual one.   

Employees of many companies increasingly report that they want to work for an organisation with strong purpose and values. Recent global uprisings reacting to climate change and racial inequities have only amplified this more among many companies’ workforces. Building a strong ethics ecosystem within an organisation is increasingly becoming a vital part of employer-employee relations in addition to public relations. 

And the picture doesn’t end with employees and shareholders. Stakeholders (people with material interests in what a company does or promotes) are becoming increasingly important features of business. Many companies are beginning to understand that their moral duties extend beyond shareholder profit, and into the interconnected society in which they operate. Having a reputation as a company who prioritises ethics can help to win over stakeholder trust.  

This is why militaries around the world work to prioritise organisational ethics—and why a growing number of tech and other companies have begun to do the same. By building an employee base of ethics-minded individuals who can believe in the values their leadership uphold, organisations are able to build robust systems for responding to moral dilemmas, internal and external.  

Executive takeaways 

Military ethics focuses on building a strong team of value-oriented individuals who can overcome ethical challenges even when working in distributed ways.  

Organisations that are values-driven realise a number of benefits, such as simultaneously doing substantive good while increasing trust with their stakeholders 

Principled ethical foundations that go beyond the legal context build company cultures that employees believe in. 

Employees increasingly care about working for a company that has a clear purpose and values, and companies that reward ethically-minded employees find greater success.