The Importance of Really Small Things – Capt. Barbara Bell, USN (ret)

Joining me on this week’s episode is Captain Barbara Bell, U.S. Navy (ret). Captain Bell was one of Annapolis’s first female graduates and has a distinguished career as an aviator and naval flight test officer, during which she flew more than 1,600 hours and 35 different types of U.S. and Allied aircraft. In 1992, she and fellow aviators went to Capitol Hill to successfully repeal the Combat Exclusion laws, opening up combat aircraft and ships to women in the services. Today, she teaches at the US Naval Academy and may discuss ethics even more than I do.

She discusses a number of important ethics issues, including:

Why don’t you tell us about your career and yourself?

Absolutely. I am Dr. Barbara Bell, Captain United States Navy, retired. I’m a Naval Academy graduate. And as you alluded to already, I was in the fourth class of women to go to the Naval Academy. So, I tell people that I’m from the school of hard knocks. Women were a novelty at that time. We were only 6% of the student body, so there were lots of challenges that we faced and throughout my career, I would say I have always been a pioneer. Yes, I was an aviator and test pilot school graduate, so I know a lot about testing things, analyzing things, and then fixing them. I am a systems engineering major and spent the first half of my career flying and creating a career path that worked for me and began to work for women who followed me as well. Now I have my doctorate in higher education leadership and policy from Vanderbilt University.

After I retired from the Navy, I consulted in the aerospace sector for a number of years and just found that that wasn’t quite fulfilling me any longer. So I picked up and moved to Nashville, Tennessee to get my doctorate in education at Vanderbilt. After that, I went on to direct a center for STEM education for girls, and then Vanderbilt asked me to come back and teach leadership, which I was absolutely thrilled to do. I taught Leadership at Vanderbilt for several years, and then just this past summer, I moved back to Annapolis and now I’m teaching ethics and leadership, as well as team and organizational leadership. Delighted to be with you today. It’s hard to go through an entire career in a short amount of time, but that gives you some of the highlights.

What is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted?

I’ve thought about that question and oftentimes we’re looking for that one big time where we really stand up and we make a difference. But I’m here to tell you, it starts with the small things. It starts with those really small things. Aristotle talks about habituation and development of our virtues, and it starts with those very small things. That’s what we’re teaching our students at the Naval Academy.

As I was considering, what is that one thing? What came to mind is an incident early on in my career. I was in my squadron. I walked in one day and some of the guys were saying, “Hey, Barb, thanks so much for the card that you put on the board.” And I thought, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I walked over to the bulletin board and there was a card and there was a picture of a woman on the front and she had her skirt flipped up and she was bent over and in the inside it said, “To the men of the squadron, from your number one fanny,” and my name was signed on it.

I was furious, I was livid, but I waited, and I waited for our morning meeting.

So, we called our all-officer meeting and we went through the different departments and what was going on and then the commanding officer, as he normally would do, he said, “Are there any comments from the audience?” And I stood up and I said, “Whoever put that card on the board, I expect an apology. I will not tolerate this type of behavior in this squadron. I will not tolerate it.” I remember the CO looked at me and he said, “We need to talk.” I said, “Sir, we do. We do need to talk because there is no place for sexual harassment in this organization.”

I brought that forward because I was pretty young, but I was well-trained. I had four years at the Naval Academy where I learned a lot about grit and persistence and how to stand up for myself. So, in that moment I was standing up for myself, but I was standing up for everyone else who was different. And it starts with those small things and oftentimes we’re afraid to stand up, but it changed the environment, and it changed the culture.

Then I think of later on in my career, I was a major program manager for the Navy. I had all the air traffic control and combat identification equipment. I had a $1.2 billion new program that was in trouble. I remember the contractor was not telling me the truth. By that point in my career, it was easy to call him on the carpet and to say, “Where are we?” Because I had practiced again and again over the years. I had to go and tell my boss, the admiral, that we were behind schedule, that we were not going to make the milestones that we had intended to make. But those years of practice brought me to that place where the biggest dollar amount was on the line, $1.2 billion, and I can make that choice.

Bad news does not get better with age.

That’s what I wrote in my notes. Bad news does not get better with time. And that’s an important lesson to teach our team members.

What you’re saying aligns so much with why I created this podcast is because I hate when people talk about annual ethics training and it’s the one big thing. It’s the little choices. Mark Cautela, who’s the head of comms over at Harvard Business School talks about it. It’s those little steps when you’re quiet the first time that it gets tougher to speak up later.

For a junior officer or a young employee just starting out and they’re seeing something that is just not appropriate (and it may be from their senior), how can they become comfortable speaking up? If they don’t feel empowered in that situation, what should they do?

They have to learn to speak up. I was just talking with one of my students and I wanted her to speak up more in class. She was very quiet, and then I read her midterm exam, and she blew me away with what she was understanding. And I said, “We need to hear your voice because your voice is so critically important.”

Our voices are all critically important. All my students have to speak up because that’s part of being a leader. Now, we have those who are internal processors that need more time, and we have those who are external processors that need to speak right away, but we’ve got to bring those voices forward and, again, that practice.

Maybe you have an issue with your boss, you need to have that conversation about what’s not working for you. Sometimes the boss doesn’t understand the impact that they are having on a team member. We tend to think that bosses know all and see all, but there’s always something going on in your organization, and if you can bring that to your boss’s attention, you’re going to help them and you’re going to help the organization.

I remember I was working in a new job. It was very different for me. I was working in aerospace as opposed to aviation, and I recognized that my next promotion was going to be based on how well I did in that position.

I remember the first couple of staff meetings, I really didn’t say anything. Then I could feel this tap on my shoulder like, “You have got to speak up.” So, I vowed to myself that every meeting I was going to say something. Each time you put your voice into that shared pool of knowledge, it gets easier and easier, but you’ve got to make your voice known.

I tell my students, it’s the practice, it’s the experience. The reason the senior people seem wicked smart, isn’t because they’re wicked smart, it’s because they’ve screwed up for 30 years and seen other people screw up for 30 years and we know how to apply it.

And willing to make a change, hopefully, the good ones are.

We talk about the sense of integrity and staying true to what you believe in, and we make the wrong choice, and we feel that cognitive dissonance either in our heads or we start to feel that in our stomach, and we have a choice. We have a choice to feed that back and do better next time. But some people make the choice then to devalue their values so that your behavior is consistent.

You’ve mentioned your students a few times, and what is the ethics framework you are teaching future officers in the Navy?

Oh, thank you so much for asking that. We break our course into four different sections.

The first section is moral perception. We spend a bit of time looking at things like, what is the narrative that you have? We look at C.S. Lewis and what are the inner rings that you want to join to be part of that group, but then that can lead to compromise in your life. So, the sense of moral perception, the sense of integrity, what does integrity look like? Rationalization, when do we rationalize and then when do we start to socialize behaviors that are absolutely unacceptable?

Then we move from this place of moral perception of how are we seeing things, seeing the whole picture, seeing others’ perspectives? Then into moral deliberation, so how do we go through a process of moral deliberation that will help us?

And underneath that sense of moral deliberation, we look at things like constraints. Are we seeing others with dignity and respect? Are we recognizing their autonomy? What are their rights? Has someone waived or forfeited their rights? And what is the sense of justice? Is it distributed equally? Is it retributive? What type of justice?

Then we move on into consequences. What are the consequences of our decision? And it’s not just what is right in front of us. It’s that short-term consequence, the long-term consequence of our action, who’s affected and how are they affected by our decisions?

Then we move on into the idea of special obligations. We, as military members, have a very special obligation. We raise our right hand, and we take an oath of office to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. Then we look at what’s the impact on our character?

That is the portion of moral deliberation, and then we move into moral excellence. What does it look like to become someone who is seeking moral excellence? What are those virtues of wisdom and justice and courage and temperance? What are those things? We create this framework, and we move through that because at the end of our course, we get into just war theory. How do we behave in war? How do we determine if we are going to go to war?

Our students have to have the foundation built for them before we get into something as critical as just war theory. That’s the framework that we use. We bring forward a lot of case studies to try and make it real for them, bring in guest speakers. These classes are also led by former military members, senior officers, or currently serving officers. To begin the week, we kick off our ethics class with a conversation and a lecture by philosophers that we have here at the Naval Academy. It’s quite a wonderful framework for teaching ethics.

That sounds outstanding. What I do to start my classes is I have them say, “What are the ethical issues you saw this week?” Because I want them to start to think about it, and I’ve never run out of things to talk about, which is beautiful.

What are you seeing? What are you seeing, that moral perception? It’s easy. Students come in and say, “You just do the right thing.” It’s not as easy as that.

How do you work with the students and help people understand to avoid the biases they bring?

Oh, that is a great question. I employ a couple different activities in my class. One is you get a selection of color dots and you put it on someone’s head.

I ask for permission, “May I put this dot on your head?”

Then we go on around the classroom. And then I’ll say, “Group up.”

It’s interesting how they group up. I don’t tell them to group up by color. I don’t give them any instructions. And then they see, oh, they grouped up by color, the color of the dots on their forehead. And I’ll say, “Why did you do that?” “Well, you…” “No, I didn’t say.” So that sense of, “Oh, I’m looking for people who look like me, I’m not recognizing that there are people who don’t look like me.”

I ask my students and I ask when I am conducting a workshop to ask people about their stories because we make a lot of judgments based on how somebody looks, but we don’t really know that person until they tell us their story.

That’s how we break down some of these biases and we must be willing to apologize. One of the tenets of my course is that we need to bring some grace into our classroom. When we make a mistake, be willing to admit to that mistake. And I have made mistakes in the classroom, and I have apologized because our role as leaders is to apologize when we have committed a wrong, when we have made a mistake, and we need to model that to one another.

Beyond your personal experience and the framework, what are you seeing as some of the key ethical challenges for today and tomorrow?

One thing that’s critically important to me is being a role model. I look out there today and I see that many people are forgetting that they are role models, that they have to model for the next generation, what good leadership looks like, what constructive criticism looks like. We need to see modeling of what it looks like to disagree, but to do so respectfully, always honoring the human dignity that we all deserve and what we are all granted. So, when I think of that, I would like to give ethics classes to a lot of people across the country.

I was going to say, I’m not seeing a lot of respectful disagreement right now or people wanting to be role models. I’m seeing a lot of failure in both of those areas.

Yes, we need to model appropriate behavior that reflects who we are, reflects our values or reflects our virtues. I lead discussions and workshops on what I call values-based leadership, and it’s a model that I created throughout my career and have used several times when I was in command.

The first question in that model is, who am I? We need to get really clear on who we are. Then the second question is, what do I value? One could translate that to what virtues do I hold? But then the third question is what behaviors are going to demonstrate those values? And ultimately, the fourth question is, what is my vision?

I view that as a cycle at different points in our professional lives and in our personal lives as well. As a parent, we need to ask ourselves those questions. We could be that new parent and then we ask that again, we’re the parent of the teenager, then we’re a parent of a young adult. And what is it that I value? It’s not that our values will change, it’s that the way that we demonstrate those values may change over the years. I see that as a cycle. I would love to teach that all across the country.

That’s great. I think you’re right in terms of the values don’t change, but how they’re applied to us. I tell folks, Aristotle’s still relevant for a reason 2,000 2,500 years later. What you mean by magnanimity may change and how you apply that, and that’s the understanding.

I would start with those cardinal virtues of courage, wisdom, temperance, and justice.

Those are the ones that I would start with.

A lot of times I’ll take those virtues and say, “Okay, when do those virtues become vices?” Because if you have too much courage and become too reckless.

Yes, the deficiency and the excess.

Deficiency and excess, I haven’t said it that way. I like that.

What is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

I think of Vice Admiral Stockdale. When I was at the Naval Academy, we had a number of Vietnam POWs who were here at the academy. They were either professors or they were battalion officers. They surrounded us at the Naval Academy. We learned from those POWs what freedom really looks like. And though I don’t have a specific quote, I think of Vice Admiral Stockdale, who spent about seven years in a POW prison. And he talked about the freedom of the mind and what we can change and what we cannot.

That leads me to the Serenity Prayer. As I speak with my students and ask them questions like, “How are you developing your moral foundation? It’s a question we should all look at.” And so, the Serenity prayer, God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference. Vice Admiral Stockdale, he was stoic, and he studied Epictetus and he knew as he was shot down, and in his parachute getting ready to land in Vietnam, he says, “I’m entering the world of Epictetus.” He expected he would be there for at least five years, and he knew that he was going to be the most senior member at that POW camp. So, I think of him, I think of the Serenity Prayer and really bring it all back to who am I and why am I here?

I felt very called to be a naval officer, and then my time was up. I felt this tap on my shoulder, it was time to transition. And then very fortunately, I felt a new calling on my life and that was to be an educator and a developer of leaders, and that’s what I do today. And most specifically, ethical leaders for our future.

People learn from the words of others. And I believe you have a book that’s out now, Flight Lessons?

I do. My book is Flight Lessons: Navigating Through Life’s, Turbulence and Learning to Fly High. It is part memoir and part call to action so that people learn how to fly high in their lives. I talk about flying literally, but I also talk about it metaphorically, and it’s broken into three sections. One is gridding it out, the next is navigating turbulence, and the third is earning your wings. I’ve got some great questions for reflection in it, and I hope that you’ll consider, and your audience will consider taking a look.

Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wanted to highlight?

I am so glad, Mark, that you have this podcast, Ethical Voices. Just the title of it, Ethical Voices, we need to hear more ethical voices in our world. And while we might not have a microphone at the national level or the international level, we have one in our families, in our work life and in our community. So, my charge is to be that ethical voice of your family, your workplace, your community, and maybe nationally and maybe for the world.

You can listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here.

Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA
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Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the general manager of C+C's Boston office. C+C is a communications agency all about the good and purpose-driven brands. He has more than 20 years of tech and fintech agency experience, served as the 2016 National Chair of PRSA, drove the creation of the PRSA Ethics App and is the host of


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