#TBT Mickey’s Rule #11: Check Your Moral Azimuth

az·i·muth [az-uh-muhth] noun

1. Astronomy, Navigation . the arc of the horizon measured clockwise from the south point, in astronomy, or from the north point, in navigation, to the point where a vertical circle through a given heavenly body intersects the horizon.

2. Surveying, Gunnery. the angle of horizontal deviation, measured clockwise, of a bearing from a standard direction, as from north or south.

Origin: 1350–1400; Middle English azimut < Middle French ≪ Arabic as sumūt the ways (i.e., directions

It seems a constant to me that people who get themselves into trouble with their families, their workplace, or the law are usually caught living a hidden or double life. Whether it’s the website a husband doesn’t want his wife to know about or the businesswoman fudging on her company expense account, people hide what they know is illicit. We see it all the time in the news: politicians caught doing the very thing they campaigned against, military leaders violating their code of conduct, and seemingly average people living secrets that when exposed resulted in arrest and sometimes horrible crimes. The interesting thing is on the whole people know when they’re doing something wrong. If we’re doing something that we wouldn’t want posted on the company bulletin board, it’s not likely healthy behavior. Or as my mother used to say, “it’s either illegal, immoral, or fattening.”


President Ronald Reagan once said that character doesn’t just “happen” at times of crisis, it’s constructed bit by bit by seemingly insignificant decisions. Our character is the compass on which we guide our decisions and our lives. When we have to make decisions, particularly those that involve morals, money, or the mission, we consult our character compass. I call it “checking your moral azimuth”

Of course a compass is of no value unless it points north. So it is with our internal compass. As I wrote in this post, to be useful a compass can’t be self referencing. For those of us in the military, that external orientation is our Core Values and our Oath. For others, the “North Star” is their religious beliefs or political philosophy, or perhaps their professional code of ethics like the ones for physicians or engineers. For companies large and small, that orientation should include personal ethics and the organizational mission. When leading a team, leaders must foster a shared vision and shared code of ethics, because no team can be successful when traveling in multiple directions at once. Not everyone has to pray or vote the same way, but everyone should buy into the same organizational values and goals.

On a personal level, living life with something hidden usually means eventual personal and professional disaster. It was true 30 years ago and in the internet age it’s even more true that secrets don’t stay secret for long. In other words, successful people live an integrated life free from hidden activities. They are the same person on Monday morning they were Saturday night. This sort of consistent approach is a recipe for excellence. Excellence is not only the standard of what we seek to achieve, it is the expectation of those we serve as leaders. We also have the right to expect mission success and high personal standards from each other.

Finally, we have to be on a good azimuth, the right “compass heading,” when making decisions about our jobs or our lives. Having the right direction is important for any person, but it’s crucial for leaders because people will follow us and do what we do. From making decisions on personal finances, to personal risk management, to the discipline to follow that same checklist for the umpteenth time, staying on the correct moral azimuth will ensure we make the right decision.

As much as we try to set a good example, no one can make decisions for another person. Each person must have a well developed enough sense of personal responsibility to make good decisions for himself. It’s the leader’s responsibility to set and maintain a culture of excellence and responsibility, but ultimately we make our own choices.

Whether its navigating the businesses landscape or making a low-level bomb run, checking your compass is an accepted part of our habit pattern. Its just as important to check our moral azimuth…and that’s a skill for success in life.

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