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Vol. 7, No. 3
(626) 350-1500 Ext 102  

Extraordinary achievements demand extraordinary leaders.

© 2009 William A. Cohen, PhD





Major Clay McCutchan was an air commando and pilot of an AC-130 gunship in the Air Force Reserve. Extensively modified with side firing guns and the latest acquisition electronics, the AC-130 was a formidable aircraft. It could loiter for long periods of time until needed. When called upon, it could provide unparalleled firepower to destroy most targets in areas where the ground defenses were not too heavy.


In late December 1989, McCutchan and his crew were one of two Air Force Reserve crews who volunteered to relieve an active duty AC-130 crew assigned to Panama during the Christmas holidays. They had done this three times before. What McCutchan and others didn’t know is that the decision to invade Panama and capture Noriega had been made a few days earlier by the President. The invasion, called “Operation Just Cause,” was set for the night of 19-20thDecember 1989. This was only two days after McCutchan’s arrival.


The objectives of Operation Just Cause were to capture Noriega and return him to the U.S. to stand trial on drug charges. The Air Commandos, or Air Force Special Operations, as it was now called, were to spearhead the invasion. Active duty gunship crews had practiced for months in firing at and destroying mock-ups of certain pre-designated targets. Since McCutchan’s crew had not participated in this training, they were given a different mission. His crew and was put on standby alert to guard Howard Air Force Base, the American air base in the Canal Zone and the Panama Canal itself, in case it came under attack.


When no attack against the base came, they were ordered into the air to respond, if called upon, to help friendly troops fighting on the ground. For some time they flew around without a specific assignment. Then they were sent to aid a group of civilians at another airfield immobilized by a sniper. A few rounds from their 40mm guns took care of that problem. Then they flew around again waiting for a new job. Finally, McCutchan’s crew was ordered to attack three enemy armored cars on the Fort Amador Causeway. They made radio contact with the Forward Air Controller (FAC) on the ground right away. The FAC’s job is to control all friendly air strikes in his assigned area. After they located the armored cars the control told them “You’re cleared to take them out.”


As McCutchan prepared to fire, his sensor operator and fire-control officer (FCO) spotted thirty to forty troops coming out of the jungle. The FCO called the controller on the ground and told him about the arrival of these new forces. “Take them out too, they’re not ours,” said the controller. In the AC-130A which McCutchan flew, the pilot fired the guns using a thumb trigger. As his thumb began to itch in readiness, his crew studied the situation closely using special sensors.[i] The more they looked, the more convinced they became that these new troops were Americans. McCutchan had just positioned his airplane for the attack, when one of his crew stopped him again: “Don’t fire, they may be friendly!”

McCutchan took his thumb off the trigger. After talking it over with his crew, he called the FAC on the ground again and told him that they had identified the troops with the vehicles as possibly American.

“Negative, negative, they are not friendlies. They are enemy, and you are cleared to fire,” the controller responded, the frustration clear in his voice. By now the FAC was excited. “Shoot, shoot, shoot,” he intoned.


McCutchan called his command post back at Howard Air Force Base and briefed them on the situation. He asked for positive confirmation before firing. After several minutes the command post duty officer came back with a decision. “These are confirmed enemy. You are ordered to fire.”


Now, McCutchan’s actions were no longer discretionary. He had been given a direct order. He had also been given the supreme test of integrity. He and his crew believed that these were friendly troops with the enemy vehicles. Usually the FAC on the ground had a much better picture of what was going on. But with their sophisticated equipment, they might be in a better position to judge whether the troops were friendly or enemy in this instance. “Our forces were not being fired on by these vehicles or these troops, and they were not an immediate threat to anyone,” reasoned McCutchan. “If they were enemy and they lived, it would make little difference to the war. But if they were friendly and he killed them, we could never bring them back to life.”


Clay McCutchan told the controller he was leaving the area to return to base. He was not going to fire. “I was convinced I was going to get court-martialed because three times I disobeyed a direct order to fire,” he told me. Their commander met them as they landed at dawn. “You’re either a hero or in a lot of trouble,” he told McCutchan.


McCutchan spent a sleepless morning despite his fatigue. He had been up all night and in the air almost six hours. By noon the whole story came down from higher headquarters. Contact had been made with the troops surrounding the vehicles. McCutchan and his crew had been right. The troops were American Special Operations troops who had captured the enemy armored vehicles. They had been unsuccessful in contacting anyone by radio to identify themselves. McCutchan and the others on his crew were awarded medals for having the moral courage . . . the integrity . . . not to fire, even when ordered to do so.


Typical of an outstanding leader of integrity, McCutchan gave full credit to those he led. “My crew was very experienced. I was only an average pilot, but my co-pilot had 1500 hours of combat in Vietnam. All of my officers and non-commissioned officers were very experienced and absolutely top notch. It was my sole responsibility to make this decision, but I could not have made the decision I did if I did not trust them completely.”[ii][iii]


McCutchan may or may not have been an average pilot. But for certain, the Air Force recognized that he was a far above average leader . . . a leader of integrity. Some years later Clay McCutchan became a major general.

What Made Washington a Great Leader?

George Washington is not only known as “the Father of His Country,” but a great leader. Why? He was not perfect. He was forced to surrender his first command during the French and Indian War. We was an aide to British General Braddock whose command was almost annihilated. After the war he spent the next sixteen years as a Virginia planter with no further military experience. Then came our war for independence from England and Washington was made overall commander of the Continental Army. As commander in chief during the American War of Independence he made plenty of mistakes including recommending Benedict Arnold for promotion and entrusting him with one of the most important commands. He made other errors in appointment and at first very serious errors in strategy. Why then, is he considered such a great leader?


Washington was a great leader because of his unquestioned integrity. George Washington believed and maintained absolute integrity in everything he did in both war and peace. Because of his integrity, others followed him in situations when they would not follow others.


What is Integrity?

What exactly is this quality which is so universally prized among leaders who lead others under the most demanding of circumstances in combat or in business? In simple terms, integrity means adherence to a set of values which incorporates honesty and freedom from deception. But it is more than honesty. It means doing the right thing regardless of circumstances or benefits to the leader or for the organization.


What General Colin Powell Says About Integrity and Vietnam

Perhaps the strongest indictment of violation of integrity in Vietnam comes from General Colin Powell, who was a combat leader who fought there. General Powell said: “Our senior officers knew the war was going badly. Yet they bowed to groupthink pressure and kept up pretenses, the phony measure of body counts, the comforting illusion of secure hamlets, the inflated progress reports. As a corporate entity, the military failed to talk straight to its political superiors or to itself.”[iv] Some say this was repeated in Iraq when the Secretary of Defense exerted considerable pressure on his generals to their seeing things his way. This led to the General Shinseki, the Army Chief of Staff, being forced to retire for giving his opinion under oath before Congress that we had insufficient troops in Iraq to achieve success.


Far better that our teachers and leaders listen to men of integrity such as Thomas Jefferson who gave us the following warning: “He who permits himself to tell a lie often finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, til at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world believing him. This falsehood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions.”[v]


Lose Your Integrity; Lose Your Career

The Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina did a groundbreaking study to identify traits or behaviors associated with eventual success or failure of top executives.[vi] The researchers surveyed top managers and senior human resource executives. They gathered descriptions of twenty-one junior managers who advanced into the ranks of middle or top management, but failed to perform successfully. Once, these executives were on the fast track, but they had derailed. These “derailed” managers were fired, opted for early retirement, or simply were never promoted again. The researchers also obtained descriptions of twenty managers who made it all the way to the top. They analyzed the two sets of descriptions to identify the similarities and differences between the failed and successful managers. Then they analyzed the extent to which various flaws were likely to derail a promising career. One major difference they uncovered was that those managers who were extremely successful were much more likely to have demonstrated strong integrity. Derailed managers were far more likely to advance their own careers at the expense of others. They were more likely to betray a trust or break a promise. An example given in the original study was that of an executive who didn’t implement a decision as promised. This caused conflicts and affected four levels of frustrated executives below him. We’re not talking here about major integrity problems which became public such as those at Enron or which contributed to the financial crisis which began in 2008 or out and out fraud. These were very basic. Yet they terminated many until then successful careers.  Integrity is a critical law of heroic leadership in and out of the military.


Keeping His Word Costs Arby’s CEO His Job

If you say something, make certain it is the exact truth. If you later realize you have misspoken, correct yourself. If you say or promise you will do something, make certain you do it, no matter what. Leonard Roberts became CEO of Arby’s, Inc. at a time when the business was doing very poorly. He turned the corporation around when sales had been falling 10 to 15 percent a year. He did this by promising service and support to Arby’s franchisees with help and money. He delivered, and the franchisees supported him in turn. Sales soared.


Roberts was appointed to the board of directors. The first meeting he attended lasted fifteen minutes. The board was simply a rubber stamp for the owner. Eager for more profits, Arby’s owner threatened to withdraw the help Roberts gave the franchisees. Moreover bonuses earned by Roberts’ staff would not be paid. Roberts immediately resigned from the board. The owner retaliated by firing Roberts for supporting the franchisees. Robert’s sacrifice was not in vain. The integrity that he showed benefited the organization he left behind.”[vii]


Unfortunately Roberts went right into another situation calling for absolute integrity and Heroic Leadership. He was offered the position of Chairman and CEO of a chain of 2000 restaurants headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee called Shoney’s. The situation looked right, so Roberts accepted the offer. Only afterwards did he learn that Shoney’s was the subject of the largest racial discrimination law suit in history. Questioned by the Wall Street Journal, Roberts promised that the suit would be settled without long term impact on the company. Unfortunately, this was more easily said then done. This was not some issue of a misunderstanding. The policy of the chairman was not to hire African-Americans. Moreover, he fired any restaurant manager that did! “The settlement of that suit was the thing I am most proud of in my life,” says Len Roberts. “The former chairman agreed to pay up and settle. This saved the company. But I had to agree to resign after he did so. This was my second time out of work in almost as many years. My stand on integrity was getting kind of hard on my wife and kids. However, I knew it had to be done. There was no other way.”


Roberts became the CEO of Radio Shack after leaving Shoney’s. A year after that, he took on the additional job as CEO of the entire Tandy Corporation. This began a ten year career of success with many honors. Brandweek Magazine even named him Retail Marketer of the Year. Roberts said, “You cannot fake it – you must stand up for what is right regardless. You cannot maintain your integrity until it hurts your pocketbook or risks your job. You cannot maintain your integrity 90% and be a successful leader – its got to be 100%.[viii]


This “Harder Right” Affected the Rest of My Life

As a young Air Force lieutenant in 1960, I was a new navigator on a B-52 crew. Among my responsibilities were the two air-to-ground “cruise” missiles nicked named “Hound Dogs.”  The missiles were also new and there were still many problems with them that hadn’t yet been solved and during simulated launch and impact they frequently didn’t hit the target. We couldn’t really launch these highly sophisticated missiles. That would have cost tens of millions of dollars each in today’s money. Instead I spent several hours programming the missiles and updating them with my navigational data so that their computers knew where they were within feet. When we were about fifteen minutes from the target I put the missile into a simulated launch mode. The pilots followed a special needle indicator on their consoles. If the needle turned right, the pilots turned the aircraft right. If the needle turned left, they turned the aircraft left. When they did this, the aircraft followed the course to the target according to information in the missile’s inertial guidance system. A few seconds from the target the radar navigator turned on a tone signal. On the ground, a Ground Control Intercept or GCI site tracked the aircraft on radar. At the point where the missile would dive into its target, the missile would automatically interrupt the tone signal. The course the missile would take to the ground once it started its final dive was based on predetermined factors. So when the tone signal stopped, plotting the aircraft’s radar track and knowing the missile’s ballistics, it was easy for the GCI site to calculate where the missile would impact if it had actually been launched. Its accuracy was generally dependent on the accuracy of the information that Herb gave the missile’s computers during programming. These practice runs had a major impact on the crews’ careers. Crews that got good scores got promoted. Those that did not, were held back.


My crewmates were all far more experienced than me. My aircraft commander was a lieutenant colonel. All the other officers were senior. All were veterans of World War II or Korea, some of both wars. We had never flown with missiles previously. However, while on seven day alert, the aircraft commander called the crew together. “We have missiles for the first time,” he said. “I don’t want to discuss it. We’re going to cheat to make sure we get good scores. All I want to know is how we’re going to do it.”


I was shocked and speechless. This went against everything I had been taught at West Point or in my limited time in the Air Force. The radar navigator spoke up. “That’s easy. Don’t follow the missile needle. I’ll figure out an adjustment for the ballistics, and I’ll “bomb” the target using my bombsight. All you have to do is follow the bombsight’s needle as we normally do. The GCI site will not know that we’re actually bombing the target because we activate a tone in the same way as with the missiles.”


We had three days of crew rest before getting together to plan the mission which would involve the twelve hour flight with the missiles. It would include the simulated missile launch, some regular bomb runs, some navigation and bomb runs at low level, an aerial refueling, and a celestial navigation leg. The three days were absolute hell. I was new to the crew and the squadron, but he had heard rumors that this type of cheating was not unusual due to the extreme competition for promotion. Now I was being ordered to do it with the very missiles to which I was entrusted. I talked it over with several other young lieutenants. They told me not to rock the boat. They told me that this sort of thing was not unusual and that everybody did it. If I didn’t cheat occasionally, they said, it would be the end of my career.


I had worked long and hard for my career. I had worked long and hard to get to West Point, and with difficulty managed to make it through my four years there. I had spent a year in navigation school, six months in bombardier school, attended Air Force survival training, and more weeks of B-52 ground and air training. It had been six years altogether. How could I let it all slip away for this one little lie that apparently nobody cared about anyway? However, this lie was contrary to everything I had been taught and believed in about being an officer.


When my crew met to plan the mission, I asked to speak to my aircraft commander privately. As soon as we were alone I told him: “If you want to cheat on these missiles, that’s up to you. But get yourself a new navigator, because I’m not going to do it.” He was furious and berated him for quite a long time. Then, he slammed the door to the room and left the room. I was plenty scarred, and I thought it was the end of my career.


An hour or so later, he was still angry when he said he wanted to see me alone. Once alone he said, “Okay. We’ll do it your way. And, this won’t affect your performance report. But those missiles better be reliable. I told him that I would do everything possible to make them so, but I wouldn’t cheat.  Later I heard that this aircraft commander told someone, “I don’t know whether Bill’s a good navigator or not, but I trust him. He’s honest and he’s got guts.”


The missiles were reliable. To this day I don’t  know if I was skilled, lucky, or whether the two lieutenant colonels had figured out a way to fool their inexperienced young navigator. But here’s something I did know. I knew how far I would go for what I believed to be right. And the answer was: all the way. I believe that knowledge has helped me immensely over the years and I believe that I owe whatever success I have achieved in part to this decision to do “the harder right.” . In fact, it still affects my thinking today. Had it ended my career then and there, it still would have been worth it for this priceless piece of knowledge about myself.


You’re in the same position. If you haven’t met this test yet, you will. If you already have and passed it, congratulations. You’re on the right path. If you failed, don’t make the same mistake twice. You don’t have to. The past does not equal the future. It’s never too late.


Integrity and the Life of General Morris “Two-Gun” Cohen

No direct relation of mine, Morris Cohen was born in Radzanow, Poland. His Orthodox parents fled Poland to escape the Pogroms and Morris was raised in London. Cohen was almost constantly in trouble. His parents sent him to reform school. When that didn’t work, he was packed off to Western Canada to live with a relative to live and work. They hoped that this would straighten him out. Initially he worked on a farm near Whitewood, Saskatchewan. He tilled the land and tended the livestock. But he also learned to shoot a gun and became an expert marksman. A friend taught him how to gamble and to play cards. He also learned how to cheat at cards. Then he began wandering through the Western provinces. He made his living in a variety of activities, from gambling to selling real estate. Some of his activities were illegal and he ended up in jail. On release, he became friendly with some in the Chinese community. In a Chinese restaurant one day, a customer attempted to rob and beat up the proprietor. Cohen was not physically imposing, but he was tough and he knew how to fight. He threw the villain out. This was unheard of in those days, as few would defend the Chinese against a Caucasian. This incident drew Cohen into Chinese politics and their fights for their rights in Canada.


When World War I came, Cohen volunteered for the Canadian Army and went overseas. His record was spotty. He was promoted to sergeant — several times. Then he would get in trouble and be reduced to private again. After the war, he returned to Canada. However, he had difficulty in finding employment. With his Chinese contacts in Canada to help him, he went to China to close a railroad deal for Dr. Sun Yat-sen, “The Father of Modern China.” Dr. Sun was apparently impressed with Cohen and he offered him a position as a bodyguard and as his aide-de-camp with the rank of colonel. This meeting changed Cohen’s life. He became a trusted confident of Sun Yat-sen and went on many missions for him both within China and to Europe, and later after Sun’s death, for other top Chinese leaders. In the late 1930’s this mostly had to do with the acquisition of weapons with which to fight the Japanese. By now, Cohen held the rank of major general. He met with senior officials not only in China, but in countries like England. This was extraordinary because Cohen not only didn’t speak Mandarin or other Chinese dialects, but even his English wasn’t very good, which he spoke with a heavy cockney accent. When the Japanese invaded, Cohen personally put Madam Sun Yat-sen’s widow on a plane to be evacuated, but he refused to go. He preferred to stay and fight. Captured by the Japanese and beaten and starved, he barely survived.


After the war, Cohen was one of the few men who could travel freely between Mainland China and Taiwan and he knew both Chang Kai-Shek and Mao Tse-Tung personally.  He was an honored guest everywhere he went. His English was so poor that though he wanted to write his memoirs, he was unable. How did a poor uneducated cockney Jew, who could neither speak nor write Chinese, and even English not very well come to be on good terms with world leaders in several countries? Many who were interviewed about this agreed that it was his integrity. All knew that Cohen could be absolutely trusted no matter the deal or the money involved. Cohen himself said, “I wish I had known about this integrity business in the old days. I would have been far more successful.”[ix]


Guard Your Principles

As we saw earlier, integrity doesn’t only mean being honest and talking straight. It means being trustworthy and principled. Many leaders in business state that integrity is important. Yet, these same corporate executives don’t blink at discharging thousands of loyal employees. If asked, they would probably say that the firings “go against their principles”, but that they had “no choice.” They offer little or nothing to most of their employees to ease the pain of dismissal. Yet, many of these employees worked for these organizations their entire lives. Moreover, in many of these corporations, CEOs took big bonuses and salary increases, even as they fired employees. Even when layoffs are necessary for corporate survival, as in times of great economic challenge, there are two cautionary notes for company executives that want to maintain absolute integrity. First, the leadership should share the pain through its own salary cuts. Second, everything possible should be done to ease the situation of those that must be terminated.



Maintaining absolute integrity is the bottomline rule for any leader if he wants his subordinates to follow him under all conditions . . . to hell and back. You can develop your integrity if you will:

  • Keep your word
  • Chose the harder right over the easier wrong
  • Guard your principles


If you do this, others in your organization will do it too. You will build the foundation of Heroic Leadership if you maintain absolute integrity.

[i] Kelly, Orr, From a Dark Sky,  (New York: Pocket Books, 1996) p. 280.

[ii] McCutchan, Clay, telephone conversation with the author October 1, 1997.

[iii] McCutchan, Clay, letter to the author March 10, 1998.

[iv] Powell, Colin, My American Journey, (New York: Random House, 1995) p.149.

[v] Jefferson, Thomas,  August 19, 1775, as quoted in Robert A. Fitton, ed., Leadership: Quotations from the Military Tradition, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1990), p. 297.

[vi] McCall, M.W., Jr. And Lombardo, M.M., “What Makes a Top Executive?” Psychology Today, (February, 1983) pp.26-31.

[vii] Poe,  Richard, “A Winning Spirit – It Takes Integrity To Lead Franchises To Victory,” Success v37 n6 (August 1990) p60.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Anyone interested in Two-Gun Morris Cohen should look up two books, both now out-of-print. Two-Gun Cohen by Charles Drage (London: Jonathan Cape:, 1954) is the more fun to read as it was written with Cohen by a former British Naval officer who knew him from his early days in China. Two-Gun Cohen: A Biography  (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1997) by Daniel S. Levy is probably the more accurate, but it was written some years after Cohen’s death and lacks Drage’s intimate knowledge of his subject.


For more information, contact me directly by e-mail at or telephone (626) 794-5998. Yes we do give international seminars — The U.S. country code is 01.



Of the many attributes necessary for success, two are vital – hard work and absolute integrity.

                            – Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery