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Ethics: Two Very Simple and Practical Guidelines

Jim McPherson, Executive Director

If you turned to this article expecting to find a quick hour of continuing legal education (CLE) qualifying ethics credit, I hate to disappoint you. What follows in the next few paragraphs is very simple and practical advice from a very distinguished businessman and government leader – who isn’t an attorney!

After graduating from the University of Maryland and obtaining an MBA at Texas Christian University, Gordon England enjoyed a very successful career in the aerospace industry. He started working for Honeywell, moved to Litton Industries, and finally settled in General Dynamics where he held a variety of senior management positions. He retired from General Dynamics in 2001 as executive vice president.

Shortly following his retirement, Mr. England was selected by President George W. Bush to serve as secretary of the Navy. His appointment was somewhat controversial since Mr. England’s career was with the defense industry and he had no military experience. However, in 2001 he was confirmed by the Senate and sworn in. In January 2003, Secretary England was asked by President Bush to move over to the recently established U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as the deputy secretary and take on the monumental task of organizing DHS. His DHS tenure was relatively brief as he was once again asked to return to the Navy as the secretary following the tragic death of his nominated replacement. He returned where he served until 2005 when he was tapped to become the deputy secretary of defense. He served in that position until 2009.

I had the privilege to work for Secretary England when he was secretary of the Navy both times! During my first meeting with him in his Pentagon office, he shared with me a few of his leadership and management philosophies molded during many years in industry and the few months he had served in the public sector. When it came to ethics, he had two principles:

Be forthright, honest, and direct with every person and in every circumstance; and,

Make ethical standards more important than legal requirements.

The first is really a guideline for your relationships with your subordinates, peers, or senior leaders as well as those with whom you interact in your daily responsibilities whether a client, constituent, opposing counsel, lobbyist, etc. “Be forthright, honest, and direct with every person in every circumstance.” It is not always easy but always the right path to take.

As an attorney, the second principle was somewhat surprising. Not surprising as an ethical principle but that ethical standards and legal requirements might not always be the same. Give that some careful thought. In the area of ethics, legal standards are the lower limits below which attorneys should not fall. However, what Secretary England was trying to convey to me was that as public servants, we should not make that lower limit our guiding principle but rather conform our conduct and practice to a higher standard. We should endeavor to go beyond the legal requirements and embrace an ethical standard that exceeds the legal one.

Perhaps not CLE material but sound advice for all of us.

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