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Why Integrity Matters to Leadership

May 14, 2017

SajjanHe was born on September 6, 1970, in Bombeli, a village in Punjab’s Hoshiarpur district. His father, a Sikh, was a police constable with the Punjab Police. The young boy would grow up to become a highly respected police detective and reservist soldier.

When the family emigrated to Canada in 1976, young Harjit Sajjan was only six years old. His mother worked on the berry farms in British Columbia’s lower mainland, and sometimes Harjit and his older sister would help her. The father, meanwhile, had been working at a sawmill for two years before the family’s arrival in Canada.

At age 19, Sajjan joined the Canadian military. Over the course of his career he advanced to the rank of lieutenant colonel. During this time he served in four deployments abroad: first in Bosnia and then three in Afghanistan (he was wounded in his first deployment). However, it was upon his return from Bosnia that he joined the Vancouver police department where he worked for 11 years, notably his latter years in the anti-gangs unit.

Never to stand still and stop contributing to his country, Sajjan entered politics to win the Liberal riding of Vancouver South in the 2015 federal election. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, himself a relative newcomer to politics, appointed Sajjan as Minister of National Defence. Given Sajjin’s background, many people applauded the appointed, though he was a rookie politician being thrust into one of the most senior cabinet positions.

Take a moment to read my November 29, 2015, post The Way of the Warrior Leader which profiled Sajjan and other respected soldiers.

All was well in the ensuing months with the new Defence minister. Sajjin was wobbly in his performance at times; however, he had the respect of the military, and notably was warmly greeted in Washington, D.C., by Defence Secretary James Mattis (appointed by President Trump in early 2017).

And then things unravelled quickly—very quickly.

Sajjan 2.jpegIn a still-to-be-understood action, Sajjan lied about his role in Operation Medusa, a Canadian-led offensive against the Taliban in 2006, with support from the U.S. military and Afghan soldiers. In a speech in India in spring 2017, Sajjan claimed that he was the architect of Operation Medusa. While some claim that Operation Medusa was a great success in what Sajjan stated as “removing 1,500 Taliban,” the reality is that it showed Canada’s unpreparedness for taking on the Taliban in an inhospitable environment.

Sajjan had worked as a senior intelligence officer in Afghanistan, and during Operation Medusa his role was liaison between Canadian commanders and local Afghan leaders. However, word leaked out about his comments in India and in no time Sajjan’s self-inflated role in Operation Medusa hit the headlines in Canada. In the House of Commons, he was continuously under attack, with the Conservative Party going overboard in its criticisms of Sajjan. The Defence Minister apologized repeatedly, though never fully revealing why he lied. Here are just two of his public statements:

“I’d like to apologize for my mistake in describing my role. I’d like to retract that and I am truly sorry for it. I in no way would like to diminish the great work that my former superiors and our great soldiers,”

“What I should have said is that our military successes are the result of the leadership, service and sacrifice of the many dedicated women and men in the Canadian Forces. Operation Medusa was successful because of leadership of MGen [Ret’d] Fraser and the extraordinary team with whom I had the honour of serving.”

Sajjan 3On May 3, CBC Radio’s Ontario Noon did a province-wide phone-in on the controversy over Harjit Sajjan’s comments. Callers included many current and retired Canadian Armed Forces members who took opposite stands. Some believed that he should resign as Defence Minister, while others defended him. The same was with the public who phoned in. However, perhaps of special concern were comments which basically said: “What’s the big deal? Politicians lie and deceive all the time. Why should Harjot Sajjan, a soldier who served his country admirably, be punished?”

Their point is taken. Yet it overlooks the context of Sajjan’s transgression: he was a soldier in a leadership position to whom subordinates looked up to and took orders. Attempting to polish his ego and political stature by grossly overstating (to put it mildly) on two separate occasions his role in Operation Medusa is a sad statement on his leadership, personal ethics and integrity. Check out this commentary from a Canadian war correspondent.

It also doesn’t say much for the Canadian public’s expectations of their elected representatives. It’s akin to a lowest common denominator in which politicians—notably those holding cabinet positions—are expected to break promises and engage in inappropriate behaviours at some point in their careers. It’s not surprising that Canada’s turnouts at federal elections are typically under 60 percent.

Prime Trudeau was under steady pressure to fire Sajjan as defence minister, yet he refused. This is the nature of the political game. Canada has a long history of federal cabinet ministers either stepping down for inappropriate behaviours or being forced out by prime ministers. It’s nothing new. Sometimes, an offending cabinet minister will go to the penalty box for a year or two, to later pop up in another cabinet portfolio.

In Harjit Sajjin’s case it’s a little different. This is a retired soldier (and former police office) who is leading men and women in uniform. He is their role model who must demonstrate consistent ethical behaviour at all times. It’s a very unfortunate story, especially for a man who was so well liked and respected by his peers and the public.

However, it’s about integrity. The proper action is for Harjit Sajjan to step down from his role as Minister of National Defence and go to the penalty box.

A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.
— Charles Spurgeon


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