There wasn't a boardroom in sight. The small group of business students stood inside a makeshift "mosque," faced with a man they were told was a local cleric sanctioning a forced marriage. The "groom" was holding his bride-to-be on the ground while she screamed for help. Not wanting to appear intolerant, the students were reluctant to act. Despite her protests and attempts to escape, the ceremony and a simulated "consummation" proceeded, leaving the bride brutalized and almost too weak to tell the students this was all their fault.
The mock ceremony took place in the woods of Quantico, Va., and the actors were U.S. Marines assigned to The Basic School, a 26-week course designed to teach officers how to be combat leaders. The business students from Georgia State University were taking part in a condensed civilian version of the Marines' training. The dramatized scenarios encountered in "Operation Centralian Calm" were part of their corporate ethics studies, meant to demonstrate the kinds of decisions Marines and soldiers face during deployments.
This particular group had just finished the second of four scenarios they had faced that day, and so far all were frustrated with the decisions they had made. Earlier, two "non-governmental organization workers" who claimed to be Americans were shot in their heads at point-blank range by a militant standing on the opposite side of a fictitious border with a hostile country. In an attempt to avoid a diplomatic fallout, the group had done nothing.
See photos from the scenario training below.
Steve Olson, an assistant professor at GSU, first reached out to the Marines about joint training for his business students after learning about what he says is a direct correlation between corporate ethics and the values behind training for today's style of war. "The 'four-block war' format is a lot like the diversity of stakeholders that faces a corporation," Olson says, referring to how the military characterizes the challenges of combat—on one block a Marine may face a pitched battle, on the next a humanitarian mission, on another riot control, and on a fourth he may be training native forces how to fight an insurgency.
"You have to impose ethical meaning on a situation that does not have that ethical meaning yet," Olson added.
The program is so effective for executive business students that other organizations have sent its members to Centralian Calm, including Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies and Business Executives for National Security.
Every year, Olson says he takes three to four classes of GSU students and alumni to spend three days in and around the Quantico woods learning the lessons hardened Marines have forged in combat.
His students are often disturbed by how quickly they fail at making ethical decisions in the early portions of his class, he says. "We want some of that disturbance while you're in your training, because we want to avoid Enron, WorldCom, Lehman Brothers," Olson says. "We don't allow people to fail like that in our corporate training. And I don't know any other organization in the world that does it like the Marines."
This week's business students were running on only a few hours of sleep after enduring a simulated artillery attack in the middle of the night where they had to decide if they should cross the same border to rescue wounded victims. They deliberated too long over who they should save, and all the victims died. "You guys have tolerated murder and rape so far," said Marine instructor Capt. Katelyn Van Dam as they began the debrief near the military field tent that served as the makeshift mosque. "You've apologized and said you needed to be more tolerant," said Marine Maj. Steve Clifton, another instructor.
TBS instructors warn students against relying on regulations, such as the rules of engagement, to get them out of a jam. "There's no right choice according to the rules," says Marine Col. Todd Desgrosseilliers, commanding officer of TBS. "There's only a right choice according to what's right and what's wrong."
Marine officers are often surprised that they, not the rules, are the basis for their own moral authority, he says. "The rules don't help you make a decision. It's your inner sense of 'I'm going to do the right thing here, and I'm going to force myself to do it even though the rules aren't quite clear,' " Desgrosselliers adds. "It's not really possible for you to consider all the possible rules you would want to go up against. So you have to have an internal clock about what's right and what's wrong."
The scenarios in the Marines' TBS course and for Centralian Calm are designed to disorient students and take away any clear correct decision, but they are also drawn from real-life situations the Marines might face in America's modern wars. "You will be challenged morally when you're least prepared emotionally to deal with it," said retired Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, while speaking to a TBS class of Marines on Monday. "Therefore, having an anchor to hold on to is critically important." Marines must think about who they are and what they will let themselves do to find their "right and left boundaries," he said.
Back in the Quantico woods, Marine Capt. Matthew Ingold discusses the outcome of the mosque scenario with the group of students, who were trying to justify why they did not act. Many in the group were visibly shaken by the dramatic scenario. "It's much easier to convince ourselves that there is no fight, because then we don't have to make the hard decision of whether or not we're going to fight," said Ingold, a TBS platoon commander. "There is a fight. And the easiest thing to do, and the things we identify in our lieutenants the most when they get here, is there's a hesitancy to acknowledge the fight."
Ingold points to the students' justification of not wanting to offend, either by crossing a border or interrupting a local tradition. "Don't be afraid of imposing your values," he says. "It's not 'Throw tolerance out the window.' It's that we all need to redeem tolerance for what it really is: If you just tolerate all the time, then that's allowing somebody to impose their values on you."
The students patrol along a river that divides two warring countries in their first scenario of the day.
The group notices an armed militant standing over two hostages, who are wearing the uniforms of two missing NGO workers.
The assigned squad leaders circle up to formulate a plan.
In another scenario, a bride-to-be in a forced marriage manages to escape from the officials conducting the ceremony and runs into the arms of the students.
The groom grabs the bound woman and drags her back to the “mosque” where the “consummation” takes place.
Two of the students cover their fire team leader as he approaches on the scenario targets.
One of the students takes cover as the group approaches two men fighting one another in their fourth scenario.
(Photos by Paul Shinkman/USN&WR)
The instructors draw upon the military's successes as well as its failures to demonstrate the importance of maintaining values. Maj. Clifton recounts the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, in which hundreds of innocent civilians were slaughtered by American soldiers. One helicopter pilot, Army Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr., witnessed the killing and chose to intervene. At one point during the ongoing attack, he landed his helicopter between civilians and oncoming American troops and instructed his door gunner to shoot the Americans if they continued their attacks. The military lambasted Thompson for his actions until 30 years later, when he was awarded a commendation for his heroism.
Engaging difficult decisions is important not only for doing the right thing, Clifton says, but also giving oneself the opportunity to live with the decision. "Can it, in their world, hurt them? Probably. But what are you going to give up? Career or inner self?" he says, adding that sacrificing the inner self applies to both the battlefield and the boardroom.
Olson also draws upon military lessons for selecting where to work. "Choose your unit carefully, and lead and cultivate your unit carefully," he says. "The ethos of an organization and the culture of an organization you're in is going to do a lot to form you, and you have to be mindful of that when you join."
As they walked back inside for the first time in a grueling 24 hours, the students had some time to reflect on what they had learned at Quantico. "[Marines] have incredible training, and we don't see this kind of training in corporate America," said Courtenay Foy, a student in GSU's executive MBA program. There is a great disconnect between the top levels of business and up-and-comers, she said.
"If corporations today could adapt to the leadership value and culture of the Marines, corporate life would be different," said Eric Handler, another student. "Most companies disregard or don't act ethically and with a value-based decision-making authority. They might say it, but they don't train it."
"So many times in corporate America, someone stands up ethically and makes a decision," he added, "and they're axed because of it."
The group, done with training for the day.
(Photo by Paul Shinkman/USN&WR)
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