Ten days ago two U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen streaked into social media notoriety, when they were seen flashing a white-power hand gesture on national television during the Army-Navy football game. Outcry ensued, and the Navy launched an investigation.
Well, late last week the Navy published the results of that investigation. Compliance and audit executives should give the report a look, since it offers some great lessons on internal investigations and leadership challenges alike.
First, the most important point: the midshipmen did not act with any racist intent. They did flash the “OK” hand gesture, which is a symbol that white supremacists use to communicate their cause — but the midshipmen didn’t know that. They were playing something called “the circle game,” where you make the OK gesture below your waist, and when someone sees it you get to punch them in the arm.
Apparently the circle game is a legitimate thing. I’d never heard of it before, but it is indeed a game that teen-aged boys play.
Alas, the OK hand gesture has also become a popular symbol with white supremacists. For example, Brenton Tarrant, the man accused of slaughtering 49 Muslim people in New Zealand earlier this year, flashed the OK symbol during a court appearance. That doesn’t look like a harmless game to me.
You can see the mess here: the midshipmen played the circle game on national television, millions of people saw it, and millions of people speculated that our country’s future military leaders were endorsing racism.
You can see why an investigation was necessary. So let’s start there.
How the Investigation Went Well
First, the investigation was prompt. The Army-Navy football game happened on Dec. 14. The Naval Academy superintendent commissioned an investigation the following day, to be done by the Navy Judge Advocate General Corps. The preliminary investigation was complete and published five days later, on Dec. 19. Given the public scrutiny of what happened, that speed was welcome.
Second, the investigation was independent. It was done by a member of the JAG, not by someone in the Naval Academy. The report also went directly to Vice Admiral Sean Buck, superintendent of the academy. The Naval Academy also released the full report (except for names redacted, which is fine) the same day it was formally submitted to Buck.
Third, the investigation was comprehensive. The JAG officer interviewed 32 people, including the two midshipmen who flashed the gestures, several students standing next to them when they did, the midshipmen’s commanding officers, plus friends and roommates of the two. The JAG officer also reviewed video of the incident, as well as text messages among several academy students. The officer also had the FBI and NCIS do criminal background checks on the midshipmen.
That’s a lot of investigative work. How thorough was the questioning? We don’t know, but we have no reason to believe the JAG officer was a slouch. The officer collected a wide range of documentary and interview evidence for a complete picture.
Fourth, the investigation proved its conclusions. The report includes a brief history of the circle game, which has been around for 20 years at least. It appeared in an episode of “Malcolm in the Middle” in 2000; and if you ask any high school student or high school teacher, they’ll confirm the game is real. (The high school teachers I asked confirmed it while rolling their eyes, but confirm they did.)
Plus, immediately after one of the midshipmen busted out the OK gesture on television, a friend texted “Got me” to him, indicating that the friend had seen the midshipman do it. But at that time, neither boy could know the social media tornado that gesture was about to unleash.
And fifth, the investigation included a root cause analysis. Aside from possible racist intent from the midshipmen, there was another question: How did they get a chance to act like knuckleheads on national television anyway? So the JAG officer included a review of how ESPN and the Naval Academy coordinate which students get to stand in the bleachers during a broadcast.
Suffice to say, the coordination was scant. When ESPN producers needed a few more midshipmen to get good video for a liveshot, the process was pretty much, “Um, you guys over there — wanna be on TV?” Eighteen-year-old boys are always prone to sophomoric behavior, and these two did not disappoint.
So we have an investigation that was prompt, independent, comprehensive, conclusive; and included a root cause analysis that suggested a few remediation steps to prevent future shenanigans. Every investigation should be so good.
Lessons in Leadership
My one complaint about the investigation is this passage:
Within the last two years, the “OK” hand gesture, which looks like the gesture made for the circle game, became the target of an internet hoax which claimed that the gesture signified “white power.” In light of this hoax, several prominent members of “white power” and “white supremacy” groups began making the gesture in public, thereby appropriating the gesture as a symbol of their movements.
Well, if white supremacists have appropriated the OK gesture as a symbol for their movement, then it’s no longer a hoax. The gesture can connote white supremacist views. It’s a fact. White supremacists, such as Brenton Tarrant, use it that way.
Apparently the two midshipmen didn’t know that and didn’t intend to convey any racist sentiment by flashing that gesture — but the fact remains, they flashed a gesture associated with white supremacy. They flashed a gesture that has multiple meanings to different audiences, and a large group of people took their gesture in a way the midshipmen didn’t foresee.
And that’s the lesson in leadership we can glean from this incident.
Leaders are not just accountable for what they say; they’re accountable for what others hear. They need to anticipate how their words and deeds might be interpreted by others, and to do that, they need to understand the diversity of experience and sentiment in their audience.
These two midshipmen didn’t do that. To be fair, nobody should expect them to do that — they’re Naval Academy freshmen, after all. They are attending the academy to study leadership. They haven’t learned that lesson yet. I’ve seen plenty of leaders in their 40s, 50s, and 60s who still haven’t.
My point is that this incident shows the perils of leadership in the modern world. People in positions of high power — sitting in the CEO chair, serving in public office, getting on national TV — can convey messages to a vast audience. If those leaders don’t consider how their actions might be received, chaos can follow.
After all, we live in a social media world where everything is observed, documented, and analyzed. In that environment, casual statements can unleash all manner of toxic forces. Leadership is about channeling forces, not unleashing toxicity. You don’t get things done in toxic environments; you fight and squabble.
In full disclosure, I’m as guilty of that as anyone else. When I saw the video of those midshipmen, I interpreted their gesture as a white power symbol. So I minced no words about what we should do with midshipmen who really were racists:
If my tax dollars are paying for their education, expel them.
— Matt Kelly (@compliancememe) December 15, 2019
I won’t hide from that statement; I don’t want racists in the military. I’m also glad this investigation proved my fears wrong. Like I said, this incident has lessons for us all.