“Never forget that life can only be nobly inspired and rightly lived if you take it bravely and gallantly, as a splendid adventure in which you are setting out into an unknown country, to meet many a joy, to find many a comrade, to win and lose many a battle.”
— Annie Besant
I was looking for a spark. Though retired for less than four years from a career with the Alaska State Troopers, I still longed for the days when I was an active participant in that culture of pride and excellence. I found that spark in an unexpected place.
We were comfortably seated around the dinner table, my brother Jeff having created for us yet another brilliant meal. I noticed he had taken on the countenance of an apprehensive father, trying to reconcile the fact that his only son, Rick, was likely going to join some branch of the military during wartime. I was seated next to Rick, a tall, quiet, and serious young man. I listened as he described his graduate school research on leadership and his thoughts about wanting to become a Navy Seal.
I couldn’t decide whose heart was bigger at that moment — his because of the noble goal he was considering, or mine because it was filled with pride. At just 23 years old, Rick had reached a profound personal benchmark. He related that he had been free of seizures for five years. He had been diagnosed with epilepsy in childhood, and could now pursue his dream of becoming one of America’s Special Warfare warriors. His simple explanation to me was, “I know I need more. I need more challenge.”
Tradition of Honor
At that moment, I realized that I was looking at an amazing young man. His words demonstrated that he already possessed a remarkable spirit. He had developed a strong personal belief system and a strength of character usually reserved for those with many more years on this earth. From somewhere inside him, he knew that he wanted to be part of something greater than himself — a legacy and tradition of honor that represented both great challenge and great danger. With resolve and clarity, he followed his young heart and moral compass to seek the warrior’s path so as to become part of a noble culture.
As I thought about it, I realized the very concept of culture and tradition was somehow the key, and I found myself struggling with what I was feeling. It was only another moment before I figured it out — I felt renewed and hopeful. In that exchange of words and ideas, my faith in the current generation had been rehabilitated by the faith of an American son drawn to a proud culture of courage, teamwork, and willing sacrifice. In the midst of a growing population of inward-looking, electronically de-sensitized young adults — many of whom idolize superficial heroes and self-absorbed Hollywood types — I saw a spark of honor.
Never far from the surface, my memories of teamwork, the willingness to sacrifice, and the emphasis on integrity in everything we did. To wear the badge was an honor. Our core values, “Loyalty, Integrity and Courage,” were the foundation of our culture, and I remember how it felt to be part of something greater than myself. It was there that I found a belief system and made it my own. It was there that my own moral compass found true north.
As I took on more leadership roles with AST — retiring as the Director — I found myself immersed in an ongoing effort to preserve and sustain the nobility of our culture and organization. In the tradition of the warrior, we instituted rituals to honor our fallen troopers so that their sacrifice meant something to our new warriors. We placed some of our strongest and finest individuals where they could teach and mentor our new warriors as they were taught. We fought to protect the culture from erosion caused by individuals in our ranks who rejected or disregarded our code of conduct and core values. We fiercely guarded against the less tangible effect of our organizational integrity being diluted by a lack of accountability, qualification, and tolerance of unethical behavior.
Our culture was worth fighting for. It will always be worthy of our constant vigilance and guardianship. I became a “cultural guardian.”
Our Cultural Guardians
We have all felt our organizations change and our cultures drift. Each new generation brings us bright minds and young spirits who find themselves in an environment that has deemphasized relationships and the need for human interaction and connection. They live in an electronic age where anonymity has removed the normal consequence involved in unkind, unethical, or cowardly behavior. Those of us who see the drift happening — and fear the consequences — have some responsibility to act against this trend.
There is a danger that the concepts of honor and integrity and the idea of following one’s moral compass may become lost. I feel a deep sense of urgency about the need for becoming a “cultural guardian,” because we know that some simply do not possess a moral compass. They have a gate left open to integrity that can be bartered. We see others struggle to stay on an ethical course because they are susceptible to the less than honorable influences all around us.
In contrast, others possess the strength and humility it takes to survive mistakes and failure, and emerge with a fortified spirit. Some learn it with time and experience. In the end, we travel a path that leads to a personal sense of integrity, honor, and self-awareness. We develop a belief system, follow our moral compass most of the time and re-calibrate when we find ourselves drifting off course. The self-awareness of which I speak is fully realized when our moral compass surpasses all alternatives and consistently guides our behavior and decision-making.
I am blessed to have gained a bit of insight and perspective. I look back on the mistakes I made and the moments when my judgment faltered. I can look back on how my moral compass swung away from the right thing and yet ultimately calibrated to true north. I earnestly believe that there is a palpable goodness that comes from a sense of honor and integrity in the way we conduct ourselves in this world. Some of us live an entire lifetime and never possess the self-awareness shown by Rick, a young man at the beginning of his life’s adventures.
I plan to celebrate the renewal and hopefulness that Rick brought me that day. We can all celebrate the spark of honor he revealed and have hope that it will light a fire for all within his span of influence. Be a “cultural guardian,” engage and participate in the conversation about honor and integrity with our children, our young police officers, our upcoming leaders in business, education, and government.
American novelist, James Lane Allen said, “The vision that you glorify in your mind, the ideal that you enthrone in your heart — this you will build your life by, this you will become.”
Confer to our future leaders the ideal and show them a vision of a culture worth fighting for.