Building the Ethical Leadership Muscle - National Ethics Project

Aimee Windmiller-Wood, head of Amazon’s Leadership Institute, guides cadets into discussion groups during the 33rd Annual Rear Admiral Wetmore Ethics Forum’s keynote event.

Ethics programs can occasionally be traced back to major historical events, though few can claim ties to one as significant as the Iran-Contra affair. Founded in 1988 by U.S. Coast Guard Academy (USCGA) alumni concerned with deteriorating ethical standards in government, the Rear Admiral Wetmore Ethics Forum became a vital resource for equipping future officers to handle the challenges that come with leadership.

To rise up to such a challenge, the Wetmore Ethics Forum is substantial and hands-on. The day of the forum, all academic classes across the Academy are put on pause, and a sizable portion of the day is spent in cross-curricular ethics discussion and “train the trainer” small group discussions with invited speakers, fellow cadets and faculty. The focus on firsthand ethics education grew from the severity of scandals such as Iran-Contra, and the recognition that, while officers were not exempt from the pitfalls of leadership, they could be prepared to better face them. “I heard it recently said that ‘nothing in this world naturally drifts towards excellence’,” said Jon Heller, Director of the USCGA’s Loy Institute for Leadership. “It takes effort to manifest the harder ‘right’ instead of the easier ‘wrong’.”

In the spirit of deliberately striving towards achieving that “right”, the Forum’s design follows the spirit of disciplined physical training that USCGA cadets undertake. “Giving voice to our values in the midst of the pressure of the moment is a muscle that works just like our physical fitness; these ethical muscles must be conditioned and exercised so we are ready when the moment is upon us,” said Heller. “Wetmore Ethics Forum allows us all to ‘go to the gym’ to develop our ethical fitness to be, as we say in the Coast Guard, Semper Paratus – Always Ready.”

This year’s Wetmore Forum will be held Nov. 9th in partnership with the newly established National Medal of Honor Institute which provides leadership programs modeled after lived experiences and lessons of Medal of Honor recipients.

Has ethics made a difference at your institution over time? Contact Alexis Jimenez Maldonado,, with ideas for forthcoming Spotlights.

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