How can moral potency be developed in business and military leaders? How can this character be developed in a way that will enable them to perform with bravery and make strong, ethical decisions under fire?
Those are some of the questions Harbert College doctoral student in management and U.S. Air Force Lt Col Scott Heyler answers in his dissertation “The relationship between character strengths, moral potency and individual performance.”
Heyler studied 24 character strengths related to moral potency, as identified by researchers Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman in 2004, and found that six – bravery, integrity, love of learning, leadership, spirituality and vitality – stood above the rest. Heyler, who will become a management professor at the Air Force Academy this fall, plans to take this revelation back to Colorado Springs.
“I’m planning to tell them that these are the things that we might want to focus on,” said Heyler, who has been at Auburn since 2011. “What experiences can we give cadets in order to develop more bravery, for example? We want them to be able to stand up and take action in a challenging environment.
“The Air Force Academy’s No. 1 goal is to develop officers of character. We have people that are coming out of the Air Force Academy who are going to lead organizations (units) that could possibly go into combat. If those individuals don’t have the ability to make good decisions under pressure, people can get hurt or killed. That’s the bottom line. We need leaders across the board to have high levels of moral potency in order to make the right decision, to be able to stand up for what’s right even in the face of pressure and make sure that their organizations are successful in the right way.”
Before coming to Auburn, Heyler was stationed at the Air Force Academy, where he directed a cadet squadron, and earned a master’s degree at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs in Leadership and Counseling. But he yearned for more knowledge, which would open the doors for his return to the Academy as an active duty professor.
Heyler combed business schools’ websites, looking for professors who were interested in ethics, ethical decision making and character development.
“If I found a school that had two or three professors that had that as an area of interest, then I’d look a little more deeply,” he noted.
Then he found Auburn, and the Center for Ethical Organizational Cultures, directed by management professor Achilles Armenakis and funded by Harbert alumnus James T. Pursell, a Sylacauga, Ala., businessman.
“As I read through that web site, it fit exactly with what the Air Force Academy is trying to do,” Heyler said. “It was one school out of many that seemed really interested in me coming here. Folks here were saying, ‘We’d love to have you be part of our program.’ Looking back, I feel blessed and fortunate that I decided to come here because of the support that I have received. A PhD program is never going to be easy, but I’ve received unbelievable levels of support in comparison to some other folks that I’ve talked to who have gone through other programs.”
Working closely with Armenakis, Heyler interviewed Air Force personnel from Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, where the team asked about their ethical decision-making experiences, good and bad.
“While working on that study I was introduced to this construct, which is in the management literature, called moral potency, which is basically the ability to do the right thing despite pressure to do the opposite,” Heyler said. “When you talk to people involved in ethical scandals a lot of times what they will say is ‘I knew the right thing to do, but I wasn’t able to do it because I had a mortgage payment’ or ‘my kids were in private school’ or ‘I was afraid my boss would be mad’. There are all different kinds of excuses. There are a lot of different reasons why people don’t go from knowing what the right thing is to do to actually doing the right thing.”
Heyler also defined “moral reasoning,” where a person becomes aware of an ethical decision and they reason through a variety of options. The area between knowing the right choice and actually executing that choice is dubbed the “decision-action gap.”
Armenakis, who has a storied working relationship with the Air Force Academy, believes Heyler’s “decision-action gap” is a small one.
“He’s going to be an exceptional faculty member,” Armenakis said. “He’s a hard worker and is very smart. Probably one of the most ethical persons I’ve known in my life. He will do the right thing. He has ownership and ethical courage. He goes from knowing what the right thing to do, to implementing the right action very quickly.”
Heyler said higher levels of moral potency are crucial for the military, but should also apply to the business world.
“Organizations are going to function better when they are run in an ethical manner,” he said. “A lot of times, when people utilize unethical practices, it may work out for a while, a short-term gain. But eventually those choices are going to catch up with you.”