Nearly a dozen U.S. Secret Service and nearly 10 more U.S. military personnel are implicated in a prostitution scandal in Colombia while their boss, the president of the United States, meets with leaders from the Americas.
So when did the good guys, the ones who took oaths to protect us (and one another) suddenly become people of questionable character?
That’s a question a lot of people are asking, from professional peers to the news media, the people they serve, the Congress, and everyone else in between. We’ve seen more than our share of colorful stories of late that are giving us all a reason to take a moment and shake our heads in disappointment, if not outright disgust.
Questions about the operational culture of the organizations, employment screening procedures, personnel stress and maturity are all being bandied about. As repugnant and as embarrassing as each of these episodes may be to their respective organizations, the truth is each of these incidents is emblematic of the fractured, imperfect and wholly fallible fabric of people and organizations in our daily lives.
Every person, regardless of who they are, what they do and where they do it, is fully capable of doing the right things for the right reasons. They can be constantly trained on procedures and operations to do their job to its ultimate perfection and superior performance. All of those things that go into doing their jobs can occur on a day-in and day-out basis, but in the end they are all performed by imperfect people that are also fully capable at any instant of succumbing to temptation, greed, or other poor behaviors.
There is no such thing as a perfect organization or a perfect person. All are fallible. But what every organization and person does have within their power is judgment. It is that individual authority to decide what you are going to do at any given moment. It’s that internal process in our brains that guides our decision-making process and asks, “Which path do I take? What door do I open?”
How you exercise that judgment often says an awful lot about an organization as well as an individual. That’s a big reason why we are shaking our heads at these recent incidents.
The U.S. Secret Service is one of the world’s most elite law enforcement organizations, charged with, among other things, protecting the president and our nation’s other executive leaders from harm. Because of the disastrous consequences that could befall the nation’s leaders should they somehow fail at their mission, their operations should never be compromised.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was formed to make sure no one got onto a plane or any other mass transit vehicle and turned it into a weapon to kill people. For all of the gripes and frustrations that people may have about taking their shoes off and being scanned before getting on a plane, the fact is that air travel and other modes of transportation are safer and a harder target for the real bad guys who would try to replicate the murderous attacks on the passengers of four airplanes more than a decade before.
For the U.S. military service personnel serving in Afghanistan, they are truly serving in a no man’s land where some very bad people continue to do horrific things to their fellow Afghans and others. Their service for over a decade in a never-ending struggle has rid the world of some of the worst examples of the human species. Each service member, regardless of military branch, has been led and trained by some of the world’s finest, and has been expected to represent the best of our country at all times.
Unfortunately, the operational judgments of what can truly be called a small minority group of individuals in each of these organizations has left a very public stain on the larger majority of their organizational brethren. That’s a horrific shame on many levels, but it’s the nature of how people look and perceive things to be when something like the recent events occur. People are often very quick to assert that if it has happened once, it must have happened dozens of more times before. Thoughts of that nature are fallacies, and should be called out as such.
No one should believe for an instant that the actions of a few Secret Service agents in Colombia are emblematic of the values and skills of the larger organization that they came from. Nor should the wrongful actions of a few TSA agents or ill-behaved military service personnel be considered representative of the larger organization and forces that have served with honor and distinction.
In going forward, internal and external investigators, media personnel and congressional members will ask lots of probing questions about these incidents. Those are certainly appropriate given the public responsibilities each taxpayer funded entity has, but wiser time can and should be spent on refining and educating every employee of the effects their individual judgments have upon not just themselves but others. There is little doubt that none of the offending individuals in these incidents gave their names or reputations any positive enhancement. They have in many ways ruined their professional careers for good, and have probably done equally devastating harm to their personal reputations as well.
Regardless of whatever stellar service any of them may have provided previously, their failure in judgment in a single moment in time to uphold their training, their integrity and the reputation of the organizations will linger for a long time. Somewhere along the line, each of the individuals involved in these cases forgot the fact that judgment is inherently a given trust to make the right call, even when you think no one is looking. For reasons that can never ever be explained, failed judgments, like broken trusts, always come out in the end, and so do the consequences.
It’s those consequences that are paid for by those left behind; those who were doing their intended jobs in the first place. They’re the good guys, and on top of trying to stop the bad guys, they also have to rebuild the broken trusts. That can often be a harder mission to fulfill.