Hitler's back porch and the problem of ethics

If ethical violations are commonplace in an organization it’s a failure of leadership

By Lt. Jim Glennon, Lombard, IL (ret.)

The picture you see to the right is one of the greatest photos of all time. Of course I’m incredibly biased as the picture is of me and two of my sons, Sean and Brian, taken on Hitler’s back porch at his Eagle’s Nest (The Kehlsteinhaus) near Berchtesgaden, Germany this past October. A surprise birthday present for Das Idiot Fuhrer’s 50th, the Eagle’s Nest is located 6,000 feet up a mountain and is today a tourist destination. More interestingly, it’s a beer garden (Biergarten) — ironic because Hitler didn’t touch liquor. Also ironic is the fact that the diminutive dictator suffered from vertigo, so he hated the place and rarely went there.

What does this have to do with anything related to law enforcement? Well, from a purely technical standpoint, probably nothing, but let’s contemplate the connection as we explore a little history and human behavior.

Sean, Jim, and Brian Glennon on Hitler’s back porch at Eagle’s Nest (The Kehlsteinhaus) near Berchtesgaden, Germany.
Sean, Jim, and Brian Glennon on Hitler’s back porch at Eagle’s Nest (The Kehlsteinhaus) near Berchtesgaden, Germany.

I had an interesting talk with Lt. Randy Sutton while at the Street Survival Seminar in Las Vegas earlier this month. Randy is a true warrior from a variety of perspectives. Veteran of approximately 30 years in law enforcement, the last 24 being with the Las Vegas Metro PD, Randy has been involved in four officer involved shootings, rose to the rank of lieutenant, and has authored three books.

Randy and I had lunch together along with Betsy and Dave Smith. We spent maybe 45 minutes together but quickly bonded as we discussed teaching, our admiration for cops, the tribulations of leadership and being veteran officers (old guys). We compared resumes and interests, our thoughts about management and the officers with whom we bonded during our careers. But one topic spiked the conversation — ethics. I taught a class in Ethics for Northwestern University and still teach portions of the subject in my leadership classes today. Randy teaches a course that specifically addresses ethics at a command level: Ethics and Honor. Love the title.

I don’t really know Randy. He seems like a decent guy. I suspect he is a cop’s cop, which in my estimation is the highest moniker that can be bestowed on anyone in our profession.

Within seconds of meeting him, I sized him up enough to trust him on any type of call. I’m 100 percent sure that he’d have my back and I hope he would believe me to have his. But I really don’t know him. I don’t know his history. I don’t know how many friends he has. Don’t know if he believes in God. I don’t know if he has been married or if he has kids (though I do know he has a cat which worries me a little). He may be the greatest guy in all of Nevada. Some may think he is an Adam Henry. But I can guarantee that he (like me and everyone reading this article) has had to deal with ethical dilemmas, unethical behavior, and failings in his life.

There are things I’m sure he regrets doing and saying during his years on this planet. We all do. Me especially. I am embarrassed when I think of some of the behaviors I participated in both personally and professionally. Things I will have to deal with when I meet my maker. Things I still deal with emotionally and psychologically on a daily basis. However, none of this precludes either Randy or I from discussing and teaching Ethics. Our failings probably make the classes more real and more interesting. And quite frankly if our profession is waiting for he/she without sin to teach the subject, it missed its chance by about 2,000 years.

What struck me most about Mr. Sutton wasn’t some holier-than-thou attitude about the topic. It was his passion for justice, especially for working cops. We talked about how police officers have been victims of unethical behavior on the part of some supervisors. He didn’t view ethical violations in terms of street cops taking free coffee, half price meals, or grabbing paper clips from the department supply closet. He is most concerned about what he termed “administrative corruption.” Randy explained that administrative corruption was when supervisors utilize the power bestowed upon them through rank and use it for personal gratification: settling old grudges, rewarding friends and like thinkers, demonstrating power to higher authority, etc. “Too often administrators miss the point of ethics and honor as they focus on minor infractions as they put their own careers ahead of their guys and the mission of the organization.”

And he’s right. I’m not saying there aren’t ethical violations in the line-level ranks, but, I can guarantee this: if there is a pervasive ethics problem in any organization – no matter what the size – then there is only one reason. It’s part of the culture. And an organization’s culture is established, maintained and encouraged by who? You guessed it: Management.

Sure you are going to have the occasional line level individuals who lack moral fiber and commit crimes and ethical violations. But, if it is insidious within the organization, if squads, shifts, platoons, and groups are involved in such behavior, then it’s an accepted cultural phenomenon supported by the administration.

Management is always demanding appropriate and courteous behavior of its line personnel towards the public. And they should demand it. But what about the way management treats its own employees? What about management standing up to unethical behavior within its own ranks? I can absolutely guarantee that line cops notice when there is hypocrisy among their leaders. Cops can’t take a free cup of coffee but Chiefs play free rounds of golf with business owners? Cops have to be nice to the public but are treated like scum by their first line supervisors? Small infractions by line personnel are dealt with immediately while infractions by upper staff are ignored or covered up? It just doesn’t compute ethically. At least it doesn’t from the perspective of the line officers.

I don’t mean for this article to be an indictment of all supervisors, managers and administrators. Plenty of organizations and supervisors walk the ethical talk all the time. But a common theme among street cops all around this country is unquestionably the double standards they frequent see at the top of their organizational food chains.

So, let’s head back to Hilter’s back porch. Let’s examine history. Germany was a Lutheran / Catholic country; proud people searching for an identity after WW I when the paper-hanging Corporal showed up. As he talked about pride and country I’m sure he struck a collective proud nerve among the citizens of Deutschland. But at some point when he began demonizing groups of people and advocating mass violence against the weak shouldn’t somebody have stood up and said, “Wait a minute! What the hell is this idiot talking about and who is this little Austrian maniac anyway? He’s nuts!”

It is interesting when you delve into the nuances of human past there were always moral tipping points. Times when the behavior and decisions of a very few changed the course of an entire culture.

I teach a lot of Leadership classes and during one of them recently I had an interesting discussion with a 26-year-old first-line supervisor. He told me that the toughest thing about leading is trying to explain away the unethical behavior of his direct supervisor. Standing up to him, he said, “was not an easy thing to do.” And he was right, it’s not easy. But I told him he was at a crossroads. He had to make a decision (easier said than done when your career is on the line).

Let us not forget human history and understand that our behaviors and beliefs are what create it. Hitler rose to power because he talked about commitment to Deutschland, but after he gained power the allegiance he demanded from the citizens changed from country to him: Heil Hitler, not Heil (Hail) Germany.

I worked for two different bosses who had that very belief. One of them (I’ll call him Daniel O. DumKoffer, a totally made up name) told me that he expected unquestioned loyalty to him from his commanders. Not unquestioned loyalty to the Mission of the organization, but to him. Ego run amok, he had power and now he was going to wield it (administrative corruption). His behavior and belief system quickly damaged our department. It also destroyed morale. It created factions and cliques and we collectively lost sight of our department’s purpose. The unconscious belief system became: “If he can behave this way, why can’t we?” Our moral compass became ...skewed.

If you are charged with leading others then lead. But, lead them in the right direction and on an ethical path. No one can be perfect, but ethically, you set the tone by your behavior, not by your words. Remember that the Organizational Mission is why we have employees. They weren’t hired to exhibit unquestioned loyalty and display reverence to the ego of the person who happens to be in charge. Acknowledge the organization’s purpose and affirm the mission. Take a stand.

Salute the rank, but revere the person only if they deserve it.

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