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May 13, 2020

Interview with Jim Kuhn: “Focusing On Doing The Right Thing” (EP.230)

Interview with Jim Kuhn: “Focusing On Doing The Right Thing” (EP.230)


Today we are going to hear from a respected friend of mine, Jim Kuhn. Jim is an Air Force Academy graduate, a pilot and an instructor pilot. Mr. Kuhn has a long and distinguished career as a project management professional. He has a solid platform of success and personal growth for talking to us about focusing on doing the right thing.

That is the subject of today’s hour long interview.


“Before we get into the real topic of today, it’s probably best to talk a little about my early years growing up and how I came to the beliefs I came to and still hold today about what character consists of and how to develop and maintain a moral compass which I will define in a bit.

I grew up in the 1950’s in middle America in a stable, middle class family with one sister who was two years older than I but we didn’t run in the same social circles. My father was an Air Traffic Controller and worked extra jobs for extra money and once I was in junior high school my mother returned to work mainly as a clerk typist, also for extra money. We didn’t really lack anything.

Times then had a sense of normalcy. It was post WWII and there was still an air of patriotism in the nation. Life was good.

When I was ten or eleven, I saw a movie about West Point, the US Military Academy, and was immediately motivated to think about becoming a cadet. Later, as a freshman in high school, my algebra teacher who was also the baseball coach, asked me what I wanted to do later in life. I told him of my desire to attend West Point because I wanted to become a pilot. He asked me if I had heard of the US Air Force Academy and I told him I had not. During our conversation, he gave me a catalog of instruction that described the Academy, what courses I would take, what life would be like and what courses I should take in high school to prepare. I used that catalog to plan my high school career toward gaining an appointment to the Academy. It served me well and I won an appointment and entered the Academy shortly after my graduation from high school in Olathe, Kansas.

The Air Force Academy was still new. My class was the fifth class to enter and the first full strength class of cadets, and the first class to spend all four years at the permanent site—the previous four classes were smaller because they spent time at Lowry AFB in Denver while the permanent site was being built. My class was also the first to have a sitting US President speak at our graduation. John F. Kennedy was named an honorary member of the Class of 1963 and in November of that year you may remember, he was taken from us by a sniper’s bullet. So there’s a little history.

Now let’s get into character and moral compass which are our topics for today. I should preface this with the fact that I became a Christian when I was about 14 years of age and those basic beliefs influenced my views going into the Academy. I believe that everyone examining this subject should have a personal foundation upon which to build.

A key element in our initial cadet training was the Cadet Honor Code which states, “We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate anyone among us who does” which was based on the Honor Code of West Point since they had been around a while. The toleration clause was not included in the West Point Honor Code however, but it was added in 1970 following the example of Air Force. For many years at USAFA, a single infraction of the Honor Code meant immediate dismissal with which I personally had no issue. Remember, back then times were different. Roughly a quarter century later, the first infraction was examined as to whether it was a deliberate offense or simply a misunderstanding or lack of training. If not deliberate, a second chance was awarded. Society had changed.

The mission of the Academy also has changed over the years. In 1959 when I entered as a cadet, it read, “The mission of the United States Air Force Academy is to provide instruction, experience and motivation to each cadet so that he will graduate with the knowledge and qualities of leadership required of an officer in the United States Air Force, and with a basis for continued development throughout a lifetime of service to his country, leading to a readiness for responsibilities as a future air commander.” Rather long-winded and official sounding, isn’t it?

In 1960, just one year later, it became, “The Academy provides instruction, experience, and motivation to each cadet so that he will graduate with the knowledge, character, and qualities of leadership essential to his progressive development as a career officer in the United States Air Force.” Did you notice the change? “…he will graduate with the knowledge, character, and qualities of leadership…” Character has been added.

The current mission statement is even more concise: “The mission of the United States Air Force Academy is to educate, train, and inspire men and women to become leaders of character, motivated to lead the Department of the Air Force in service to our nation.” Did you pick up on that? “inspire men and women to become leaders of character…” The concept of character and its need in an individual has grown in importance.

So, what is character?

CHARACTER: the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.

What makes up character? Most people who have thought about this tend to agree on several common traits. Among them are integrity, honesty, loyalty, self-sacrifice, accountability, and self-control. There are others, but these stand out at or near the top of every list. Let’s look at each of these six traits.

Integrity – It’s interesting that the root of the word integrity means “whole” or “undivided,” and that to me is a terrific way to help us understand what integrity is—an undivided life. For example, you don’t act one way in one situation and another way in a different situation. 

Honesty — It is regularly said that honesty is the best policy, but I would add that honesty is the only policy for great leaders. Think about it. Why do people hedge the truth? Usually for a couple of basic reasons: They are either afraid of the ramifications of telling the truth or they are trying to hide something. That’s my observation.

Loyalty – I truly believe people of good character are loyal people. They have a “stick-to-it” attitude when it comes to others. Anybody who knows human nature knows that people fail. It’s just a matter of time, no matter how talented someone is. Anyone can be friends with others when times are good. People of good character stay with their friends when they need them most. That’s loyalty.

Self-Sacrifice – Years ago Lee Iacocca became a legend when he said he’d bring Chrysler back from the brink of bankruptcy and would take only a dollar a year in pay. This was a classic example of a leader sacrificing for the followers.  Donald Trump did the same thing when he declared he would donate his Presidential salary to a government cause. Now, there are those who question the motives of these two individuals. But to me, these men showed their understanding of and empathizing with the average line worker. A person of good character shows that they can give up personal gain for the good of the whole. We are all called up to sacrifice at one time or another.

Accountability — People of good character don’t mind accountability. In fact, I think they welcome it. This is the act of allowing others to have a say in your life, to speak to you straight about your life and conduct. Sadly, the brutal truth is that we all have blind spots and need other people to be in close to us so we can stay on the right road. To me, the need for accountability doesn’t prove lack of character. Rather, it proves the presence of character. 

Self-ControlThe ability to make decisions—good decisions—about what we will and will not do is at the core of what we become in regard to our character. I think everyone alive would agree that there will be plenty of options to participate in things that are not moral. And it takes self-control to stand strong.

Now, let me take you back to some personal history. After graduating from the Air Force Academy, I worked through a year of pilot training after which, I started my active career as an Instructor Pilot in the T-38 Talon, a supersonic trainer. I was finally in the “real” Air Force. Imagine my surprise and disappointment, though, when flaws in fellow officers’ character became apparent. Sometimes it was little things like adding 5-10 minutes of extra flying time in the aircraft log after a flight. I was aware of several instances where a fellow officer cheated on his wife while on an overnight cross-country flight. The reason they used to justify their actions was, “all fighter pilots do that.”

A rather disturbing incident happened while I was serving as the chief of my section and was responsible for writing Officer Effectiveness Reports (OERs) on fellow officers in my section. One officer was routinely absent for two or three hours each week and I learned that he was getting paid to teach a ground school for civilian student pilots. He did this on his own without telling anyone or seeking approval to be absent from duty. Rather than report the incident, I chose to rate him slightly lower on his OER. As it turned out, I was the second leader in a row to lower his OER rating. The Squadron Commander, a colonel, called me to his office to explain. He pushed to be sure I knew that my actions would probably ruin the officer’s career. As a Captain, I was certainly outranked. But I clearly explained, I did not believe it was my OER that would affect his career, but the officer’s own actions that determined his destiny. The colonel did back me up. I knew I was doing the right thing, but I was made to feel that I was wrong by not compromising my principles in this instance.

A little more than six years after graduating from the Academy, I left the Air Force and completed work on two graduate degrees that, when combined, matched an MBA. I felt prepared to launch into a civilian career. How wrong I was. Over the next twelve years, I worked for six different companies with the longest tenure being five years. Three of those companies I left voluntarily but from the other three I was terminated.

In one company, I quickly rose from raw recruit to top salesmen to district sales manager. When a major flaw appeared in our product, the National Sales Manager gave me information to pass on to the salesmen and customers about what was happening. I knew the information was false especially when he said we had to create a narrative that would not negatively impact the company stock price. I explained that I could not pass on false information but would instead deny that I knew what the problem was. Not long after I was fired. In another company during a proposed reorganization, I openly aligned myself with the VP who hired me and I was soon released. He was the actual target and I paid the price. It took a while, but I determined to set my goal to develop a skill set that I could move with me from company to company and determine my own career path as a consultant. It took a few years, but my experience led me to declaring myself as a project manager and becoming certified as a Professional Project Manager through the Project Management Institute (PMI). Since doing that, I have had a great career.

I can attribute what success I have had to one guiding principle: always report the facts whether good or bad. If bad, report them sooner rather than later and offer a choice of possible solutions for the manager to consider. Looking back, I truly believe this guiding principle has been a manifestation of integrity, honesty, loyalty, and accountability. Not that I haven’t made mistakes, I have. But I have worked at being loyal to the company and avoiding political alliances, to earn my employers’ and fellow workers’ trust, and feel good about making a contribution. My early Boy Scout experience dictated that we should always leave a campsite better and cleaner than we found it. Most often I have been able to do just that—and it feels good.

So, where does one start in developing character? A couple of days ago, I went out for some “to go” food and had the car radio on. There was a preacher on a topic I cannot recall because I only followed it for a brief time, but he used a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson that I had heard long ago and had forgotten. He said, “Sow a thought, and you reap an act; Sow an act, and you reap a habit; Sow a habit, and you reap a character; Sow a character, and you reap a destiny.” I don’t know the state of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s spiritual life, but he could have easily launched this quote from one of my favorite verses in the Book of Proverbs in the Bible. Prov 23:7, “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” There’s a lot of wisdom there. So right and noble thinking, I believe, is the start of developing character. With the internet and so many other distractions today, it’s work to concentrate on developing a good thought life—but necessary as at least the start of developing character.

Now, let’s turn to “moral compass.” Moral compass is generally agreed to be a natural feeling that makes people know what is right and wrong and how they should behave. I strongly believe that each individual should develop and nurture their own moral compass. As more and more people do so, I expect our society will become stronger. In fact, there are those who believe that the increase in crime shows that our society is losing its moral compass. There may be some truth there.

The latest building constructed at the Air Force Academy is Polaris Hall, the Center For Character and Leadership Development (CCLD). It was completed in early 2016 and seen as necessary to emphasize the need for character development. Walking up to the building from the nearby parking lot, you can’t miss the northward tilt to its shape. It is purposely aligned with the North Star which is called Polaris. If you were to lie down on your back some clear star-filled night and watch the stars, you couldn’t help but see them move through the sky. The earth’s rotation is causing the movement, of course, and staying focused on the North Star, you would see that it does not move. All the other stars seem to rotate around Polaris which stays fixed in the heavens. Do you get the analogy? Polaris is always fixed in space just as our personal moral compass should always remain fixed in us to always know what’s right and what’s wrong.

I am convinced that each person must develop their own moral compass and embrace those things that are absolute and never to be violated. While it took a while to develop, I can name a few of the principles that work for me.

Put Family First

I did not do this initially. I thought that if I could just get my career in order, I would have the means to take care of my family. My early bumpy career put a lot of stress on my family and it became obvious (really obvious) that my plan was backwards. Getting this right, I can now say that my grown children are outstanding citizens with families of their own and my wife and I have passed the half-century mark in marriage and love abounds. I would suggest that no one ignore this. Put your family first.

Keep Your Promises

This is critical. If you have doubts about something, don’t promise it. But if you say you’re going to do something — do it. It doesn’t matter how big or how small the commitment may be. You want people to know that you are always true to your word and you will be judged by how well you keep your promises.

Embrace Your Mistakes

Mistakes have really been an excellent learning exercise for me. I really detest making the same mistake twice—it hurts. Don’t blame someone or something else. Acknowledge your failed endeavors. 

Develop a Thick Skin

I have often felt as a Project Manager, I wore a target on my back. The more successful you become, the more visible you become, which puts you at risk to be an easy target. It could be from unscrupulous competition (or business partners!) Sometimes it’s a personal relationship that tests your honor and integrity. Continue to lead your life...