Looking for leadership on don't ask, don't tell

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By On Leadership
Sunday, February 7, 2010

Ken Adelman is co-founder and vice president of Movers & Shakespeares, which offers executive training and leadership development. He was a Reagan-era ambassador and arms control director.

No problem for a leader to change his or her mind, so long as the change is explained convincingly. Neither John McCain nor Colin Powell did so.

Before, McCain said he'd leave the decision to the military commanders. Whatever they deemed best, he'd go along with. They've come around to supporting gays in the military, and yet he doesn't. Why not? Because, he claims, the military already is overburdened.

Okay, but that's something the military commanders might realize as well -- even more than McCain -- and factor in their judgment. The good senator doesn't care more about overburdening the military than the military commanders.

Powell points out that acceptance of gays in society is far higher than when "don't ask, don't tell" was adopted, and that military values reflect society values. Both good points, but not good enough. Basing decisions like this on studies by sociologists or pollsters isn't convincing.

What would be? More evidence.

Indeed, we do know more than we did back then. The British, Australian and Israeli militaries all now have solid experience with open gays in uniform. Their forces don't suffer in performance; the gay service members there don't seem to upset the straight members much. And U.S. forces, though far greater in numbers, don't differ culturally or functionally too much from their colleagues in these militaries.

When evidence changes, leaders should change. Not because they face political opposition, like McCain, or can't abide being outside today's conventional wisdom, a la Powell, but because of a change in evidence. That's convincing, and the right thing to do.

Benjamin W. Heineman Jr. is a business ethics expert, senior fellow at Harvard's schools of law and government, former general counsel for General Electric and former assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now Health and Human Services).

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Adm. Mike Mullen called for repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" law and shifted the debate in the Pentagon from whether to abolish the rule to how to do it. He stated the principle simply: "Allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do."

But developing consensus within the military on how to implement a nondiscrimination rule is key to securing support within the armed forces, winning congressional assent and sustaining the current majority approval of openly gay service (as reflected in public opinion polls).

The initial news stories on the Mullen testimony (much more important than Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates's grudging acceptance and Sen. McCain's grousing) didn't focus on issues in implementation, but the strategy the Pentagon adopts -- and the leadership it provides -- will be critical to whether the principle becomes "actionable."

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