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Lt. Col. Todd Henshaw (Ret.)

Lt. Col. Todd Henshaw (Ret.)

Todd Henshaw is currently the director of executive leadership programs at Wharton. Previously, he directed the leadership program at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Creating a Benedict Arnold

Question: Despite suspension over honor code violations and an ongoing investigation into his recruitment, Auburn's Cam Newton last week won the Heisman Trophy--an award meant to honor "pursuit of excellence with integrity." The award raises a dilemma faced by many organizations: In dealing with top performers, how much should leaders overlook corner cutting, rule breaking and other integrity issues?

Several weeks ago, a colleague and I were leading a corporate group through a discussion of Revolutionary War history in the Hudson Valley, to include the founding of West Point and the battle of Stony Point. Any historical account of the development of West Point must include the story of Benedict Arnold's betrayal of General Washington and the colonies. We told Arnold's amazing story leading up to the day when he was discovered trying to hand over the plans for the defenses at West Point, and his subsequent escape to the British side.

The group of senior corporate leaders was astounded to learn that Benedict Arnold had been George Washington's best "fighting general," a rising star in the Continental Army. His exploits at Ft. Ticonderoga and Saratoga were great examples of bravery and heroism, played a significant role in turning the tide in the war, and resulted in notoriety, fame and rapid promotion for Arnold. The first fortifications at West Point were named Fort Arnold to recognize and celebrate this great warrior and leader.

Another surprising part of the story is that Arnold had been reprimanded several times, and court-martialed at least once by Washington on his way to the rank of Major General. It seems that in early campaigns, and again while commander of the garrison in Philadelphia, Arnold had left a trail of corruption and had managed to enrich himself by misappropriating Army supplies. Washington wrote a formal reprimand to Arnold following his misdeeds in Philadelphia, but later gave him command of West Point--the "key to the continent," according to Washington.

George Washington and the Congress allowed Benedict Arnold to survive these many ethical lapses throughout his career, failed to recognize a fatal flaw in his character, and finally provided him the means for strategic betrayal. The pattern of unethical conduct suggested that Arnold had a penchant for living well beyond his means, and he often subordinated the needs of his institution and nation to his desire for wealth and notoriety.

When we were finished telling the Arnold story, we asked these corporate leaders if they had seen more recent examples of this behavior in their careers. A great roar of laughter filled the room, and people began sharing names of people they had seen rise up the organization despite having ethical challenges on multiple occasions. Organizations tolerate these people because they are great salesmen, or have developed close relationships with senior people in the firm.

As with the Benedict Arnold example, star performers can move up the organization to positions of great responsibility, without a clear understanding of the value of ethical behavior and institutional rules and conduct. This is a dangerous combination of potential, responsibility and failed character; and, like Arnold, these "star performers" can be placed in positions where they can damage the corporation's reputation for a generation or beyond.

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By Lt. Col. Todd Henshaw (Ret.)

 |  December 13, 2010; 3:08 PM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Congressional leadership , Corporate leadership , Leadership personalities , Leadership weaknesses , Making mistakes , Organizational Culture , Quarterbacks , Sports Leadership , Wartime Leadership , Wrong-Doing Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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