Episode 29: Leonard Wong Discusses a Culture of Dishonesty in the Army

Dr. Leonard Wong // Jan 17, 2017

Dr. Leonard Wong, a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) of the U.S. Army War College, led an important study titled: “Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession.”  The study, which was published in 2015 generated much discussion as well as some consternation and reflection.

In this episode, Host Dawn Kernagis and IHMC’s Director Ken Ford talk with Wong about his study and its implications. Wong also lectured about his study at IHMC in Pensacola last September:

Wong’s research focuses on the human and organizational dimensions of the military and includes topics such as leadership development in the military profession. He is a retired Army Officer and taught leadership at West Point. He is also an analyst for the Chief of Staff in the Army. Wong’s research has led him Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo and Vietnam. He has testified before Congress and has been featured widely in the media, including the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the New York Times, PBS, NPR, 60 Minutes and CNN.

Wong is a professional engineer and holds a Bachelor’s from the U.S. Military Academy. He also has a Master’s and a Ph.D. in business administration from Texas Tech University.

1:43: Ken reads five-star iTunes review from “CC Rider,” which is entitled “Intelligent Podcast: What a Relief:” “What a pleasure to hear intelligent, articulate people discussing worthwhile topics.”

2:17: Dawn describes Wong’s bio.

3:18: Dawn welcomes Wong and Ken.

3:42: Wong describes his role at the U.S. Army War College, as well as the College’s structure. When Army leaders arrive at the War College, they’ve generally been in the Army for twenty years. They’re at the point of thinking strategically about leadership and their roles.

5:27: Wong’s research into this topic started over a decade ago, with the question of how to build more time into the schedule of junior offices to facilitate innovation. Wong and his colleagues discovered an overwhelming amount of requirements, which were stifling Innovation. In the back of his mind, Wong concluded: ‘If we require more than they can possibly do, what are we reporting?’

6:36: Wong, in conversation with his colleague Steve Gerras, once asked him what he was doing on his computer. He was supposedly doing mandatory training, but not really. He said, ‘I know, I’m just saying I did it.’ Wong realized then ‘how casually we approach lying, but we don’t call it lying.’

7:15: The theory of Wong’s subsequent study came from a book entitled “Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do About It,” by Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel (, along with what David Messick called ethical fading. The methodology was to use focus groups from various ranks throughout the Army, including staff officers at the Pentagon.

8:12: Dawn mentions that Wong’s study had a precedent: In 1970, the U.S. Army War College published a study showing that lying in the Army was pervasive. Digitization, the audit culture, and downsizing have made it worse today.

8:43: Wong says, “The Army is like a compulsive hoarder. It collects requirements, and it never gives any up. We always add more. We keep adding to the pile. Technology has made a huge influence on this.” Now, with email and Internet, we can ask people to provide digital signatures, and do various online trainings.

9:42: Wong characterizes another part of the problem: “The Army has had a giant emphasis on being a profession. It’s a good thing, but it’s made us believe that we are better than we are. We forget that we are humans. We forget that we are talking about people who can fall to the same temptations, go the same route, as an ordinary human.”

10:35: Ken asks about Wong’s description of people in the Army being so overwhelmed that they have to prioritize.

10:50: Wong says, “One of the ways to ethically fade is you take away moral aspects…. So you are void of all the baggage that an ethical dilemma brings.” Euphemisms are a common way around this, and prioritize is one way of saying you lied. “Prioritize means taking a risk: We didn’t do it, but are going to still report that we did it. Prioritize is a convenient way to convince ourselves that we haven’t lied.”

12:00: “What this study isn’t saying is we have an institution full of liars, or a cohort of people with low ethics. We’ve created an institution with a bureaucracy…with a system that is putting an onerous burden on people to do everything and report they’ve done it. Inadvertently it creates a culture in which we have to tell a system what it wants to hear or it won’t get done.”

12:39: Wong recalls the old days and how easy it was to take a leave form (31) for travel. Today there is a complicated trips form, in which you have to specify where you are going, when you are stopping, any medications you’re taking, who is traveling with you, vehicle inspections.

13:51: “We’ve surrounded ourselves with an audit culture where we have to tell a system that something has happened when it really hasn’t.”

14:00: Ken comments these are typically for the benefit of “CYA.”

14:13: Wong cites the good intentions of the people behind these requirements.

14:40: Yet he questions whether this is the best system for the desired outcomes. “It’s well-meaning, yet the system we create encourages people to lie to it.”

15:00: Study’s conclusion was that process and paperwork are replacing leadership.

15:38: “We don’t want to replace leadership with a process because a process will always tell us what we want to hear…A leader might not. We can’t always trust leaders because leaders are human. That’s where we may prefer a process, which gives us a green light. But it may not be telling us the truth.”

16:30: Ken comments that the growth of procedures and lack of discretion left to leaders “almost presumes poor leadership, judgment, and I think is a step in the wrong direction.”

17:10: Wong says, “We grow leaders. We shouldn’t be ashamed to use leaders, but at the same time we can’t expect leaders to be perfect or their people to be perfect.”

17:43: Wong describes an Army storyboard: In the old days, after an event, someone had to brief an intelligence officer on what they saw/happened. Now the storyboard “allows us to create PowerPoint slides, derived from a template, that has pictures, a narrative and a map.” These have become burdensome to create.

18:30: “You stop focusing on what happened and start focusing on making the storyboard look correctly. It encouraged people to copy and paste; or ignore the storyboard. They would either omit it, or they’d duplicate it, and fabricate them.”

20:46: “There are many things that allowed them to think that they did tell the truth, and technology is one of them. The further you move away from the why…from a statement that you know is not truthful, it allows our mind to rest at ease, and technology allows us to do that.”

21:20: One example of this is annual ratings forms to council the rated officers, which is supposed to happen every quarter. “You have to show you counseled them every quarter. The clerk will fill in dates. They’ll agonize over picking the right dates so it doesn’t fall on the weekend. Tens of thousands are turned in every year.”

23:00: Ken observes that, “In many agencies and companies, and most particularly DoD, PowerPoint has become the defacto communication tool. PowerPoint can obscure the paucity of thought underlying a particular slide. In NASA we used to have a saying, ‘This guy is one slide deep.’”

23:53:  Wong notes that PowerPoint is a double edged sword — perfect for briefings when used correctly, but it’s very dangerous when used incorrectly.

25:10: Ken comments that “Jeff Bezos famously banned power point on Amazon as a low information communication medium that often supports the illusion that the presenter actually has a coherent position or argument.”

25:35: Wong says, “PowerPoint when used incorrectly is a lazy man’s tool. But when used correctly, it’s a good stimulus for discussion.”

26:40: Ken talks about the APPP: anti-power point political party in Switzerland. Their stance: “Decreasing professional use of PowerPoint and other presentation software, which the party claims, causes national economic damage, and lowers the quality of the presentation in 95 percent of the cases.”

28:44: Some examples of ridiculous training compliance modules: Every Marine, including those that have never smoked, are required to take a smoking cessation class. This year Wong had to take training on fetal alcohol syndrome. “That’s when you get in the mind, ‘This is a dumb requirement,’ and that helps me breeze through it.”

30:00: “The danger of all these trivial examples is that added up, it creates a culture. Some reports are really important…so many reports people view as dumb. Because of this culture we’ve created, we give them permission to lie about what’s dumb.”

31:08: Dawn asks what is worse: the lying, or the pervasive perception that it’s not lying; and that we’re above lying.

31:20: Wong says, “The lying is a problem but can be corrected. If we don’t admit that we do this, then we’re headed for hypocrisy, for hubris, and that’s more of a problem.”

31:42: Commercial break: STEM-Talk is an educational service of the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, a not-for-profit research lab pioneering ground-breaking technologies aimed at leveraging human cognition, perception, locomotion and resilience.

32:24: Wong describes ethical fading as “removing the glare of the bright colors of moral decisions. You make it so it’s not black and white, right or wrong. You make it so it’s gray. One way to do that is to numb us: We start psychologically disconnecting from the ethical part of it.” One example: Every year to use computer systems in Army, they have to sign a statement that says, ‘I have read, understood and agreed with the procedures …” Preceding that is a 1900-word document. “Every single person initials that, and I haven’t met anyone who has actually read it.”

33:26: Wong mentions that in the U.K. they did an experiment where they offered free Wi-Fi to people and one of the agreements was ‘I promise to give my first born.’ “They had to stop that because every single person signed up for it. We don’t think we’re lying to a person; we think we are lying to a system. That distance allows us to convince ourselves that we don’t lie.

34:20: Wong discusses the potentially more serious implications of the lies.

35:05: “You add up all these Iraqi units that were graded green, and we had a very good Iraqi Army on paper. Then we saw what happened when ISIS came in, and suddenly all these green units didn’t perform the way all our power point slides said they did.”

35:28: Wong reflects on his own experience with compliance measures in the Army: “I remember feeling pressured, but not to the degree that they do today.”

36:32: Ken calls Wong’s study “brave.” He asks about the reaction in the Army, and whether it was rank-dependent.

36:55: Wong says it was “eye-opening.” After some initial anger, “I started getting emails, calls, and notes from people throughout the Army: You’ve just exposed what everyone knows about. Senior leaders had a hard time acknowledging it.”

38:02: “The more senior you go in an organization, the less you have to comply with these trivial requirements.”

38:50: After the anger died down, the leadership came to realize people were not under attack, but rather a culture that had been created. “To see policies change because of a 34-page document…I’m glad to be part of that.”

39:09: Ken comments that the military has a track record of leading the way in cultural changes. The problem is much broader than the military; it reflects the culture of which it’s part.

40:18: Wong says the Army could do three things to improve its situation: First, acknowledge the problem…and that it happens at all levels. Secondly, exercise restraint. “Every level of Army likes to create requirements for those below them, but we need to allow those at the bottom to exercise their own judgment.” Third: We have to lead truthfully.

44:30: Ken notes the tendency to make up words so you aren’t committing a bad act; but rather referring to the word. Prioritize is an example.   In the Navy, we used to call it, “Gun Decking or Pencil Whipping.”

45:10: Ken says it is often seen as a key role of a leader to provide “high cover” for subordinates.  When you unpack that, it often implies that the leader took the hit; that’s who checked the boxes.

46:10: Ken says Wong’s work is not seen as a criticism of the Army or people; rather of the audit culture… “Little by little, it diminishes the integrity of the force.”

46:46: Dawn directs listeners to Wong’s IHMC lecture:

46:50: Dawn and Ken sign off.