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BY JAN TREFFER THOMPSON
Low hills run below a sky streaked with blues and violets. Palm trees line a stream, their leaves stark silhouettes. The landscape looks quiet and a little hazy, like it may be a peaceful early morning in Iraq.
The scene hangs behind Dr. Noel Palmer’s left shoulder, in his office at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. It’s a reminder of the place, and the people, who have shaped his academic career.
“I don’t feel like it’s mine,” he says, turning toward the painting. “I feel like I’m just kind of entrusted with it, right now. Because the things that people went through in Iraq, that’s theirs.”
An assistant professor in UNK’s College of Business and Technology since 2011, Palmer researches and writes about leadership and ethics in management. His ideas have literally been battle-tested, through two overseas deployments with the U.S. Army Reserves. His first, in 2003, took him to Tikrit, Iraq. There he watched part-time soldiers become full-time military leaders, and the difficult transition helped start him on the path to graduate school.
“Being deployed is a tough thing because you really live in a glass house. You don’t get to go home from work and leave your colleagues behind. You share a living space, you eat together, you have community bathrooms, it’s very close living,” he said.
Pressures common to leaders in any organization are magnified in a tour of duty, he explained, so he quickly saw not only what made some people good leaders, but how others fell short. For example, Palmer knew one married company commander who broke the Army’s fraternization policy by starting a relationship with an enlisted soldier. “I saw it happen with so many leaders; dumb, dumb decisions like that. It was like ‘come on, really? We haven’t figured out how to lead?’ And so I thought ‘Well, maybe I could go back to school and study about leadership and teach about it.’ ”
Not only does Palmer now teach about ethics in UNK’s Management Department, he wrote a chapter titled “Leader Development for Dangerous Contexts” for the 2011 book “Leadership in Dangerous Situations: A Handbook for the Armed Forces, Emergency Services and First Responders.”
A common theme in his publications is that leaders can be developed, and leaders can influence the people around them. He’s also co-authored two refereed articles and one book chapter on ethical efficacy. Ethical, or moral, efficacy is the confidence people have that they’ll act in accordance with their ethics regardless of situation. Palmer’s work earned him an Outstanding Faculty Award from his college in the 2012-13 school year.
For his 2011 book chapter, Palmer teamed with a fellow Army veteran and New York City fire fighter who’d been among the 9/11 first responders. He said their work gives organizations a framework for developing leaders in dangerous contexts; the main message is that current theories on leadership development still apply, even in highly dangerous situations.
The best way to develop leaders, Palmer said, is to be one. And that’s where his interests in leadership and ethics converge. Creating good leaders ultimately leads to more ethical behavior throughout an organization, and fewer abuses of power.
“I want leaders to be more aware of their role as a leader, that people are looking up to them, they are a behavioral model, and it just so happens I’m trying to show that they have an effect on people by looking at how they affect the confidence of people to behave ethically,” he said.
Trim and clean-cut, Palmer looks like the soldier he still is. He’s been part of the military since the early 1990s, entering the U.S. Military Academy in New York after high school. He spent six years on active duty in the U.S. Army, and two years in the Individual Ready Reserve. At the end of his commission he joined a reserve unit, which just two months later was mobilized. He commanded a company that built bases at both Tikrit and Kirkuk, Iraq.
After that one-year deployment and graduate school, Palmer taught as an adjunct at UNK for the Spring 2010 semester, then applied for a full-time position. He had just finished the formal interview when he got the voice mail from his reserve unit saying they were being deployed again.
He spent his first year as a full-time UNK employee in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Palmer’s unusual mixture of experiences, as a soldier and scholar, has informed his research and his viewpoint on why leadership and ethics are important.
“If you’re walking around in Iraq you generally had at least one weapon. … Maybe you had a rifle and a pistol, maybe you had a vehicle with a machine gun on it,” he said. “So you have a lot of power that it’s easy to abuse. Recognizing that, in my research, recognizing that civilians aren’t combatants … that leaders are the ones that set the tone, they’re the role models.
“That was an important part of my dissertation, looking at how leaders build people’s confidence in behaving ethically, and hopefully reduce their confidence in behaving unethically.”
While at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, in 2009, Palmer helped write an article for the International Journal of Leadership Studies that looked at how leaders can maintain their own values even while adapting and being sensitive to other cultures. The article found a relationship between authentic leadership (qualities such as self-awareness, balanced processing, relationship transparency, and a moral perspective) and cultural intelligence.
Cultural intelligence is understanding and adapting to the values of other cultures. While those qualities could be seen as oppositional to authentic leadership, the authors found that the two qualities build on each other. Having one without the other is what can get leaders into trouble. With only cultural intelligence, they may be too willing to adapt to local norms. Authentic leadership qualities without cultural intelligence, though, can lead to insensitivity and conflict.
From that early publication, Palmer found the influence of his military experience coming through. The negotiation necessary to maintain his integrity, while remaining sensitive to others’ culture, was familiar.
“We didn’t have the luxury in Iraq of saying ‘Well my culture’s better, you need to work with us.’ We were in a different country, a different culture, we had to learn about those other cultures. We had to work with the Iraqi police, the Iraqi military, to be successful. It didn’t mean that I was going to adopt Islam as my religion, it didn’t mean I was going to share the same values, but if you can understand other people, and where they come from, and maybe be respectful of that, then you can get past that and work together when you have to. Because you had to. Iraq here was the context, but still today, there are a lot of other cultures we have to work with.”
In the book “Managerial Ethics: Managing the Psychology of Morality,” Palmer’s chapter focused on the ways organizations can increase ethical efficacy. Like a muscle, Palmer writes, efficacy grows stronger when it’s worked. A key message of the chapter is that instead of offering a one-time ethics class or occasional training opportunities, organizations that want ethical employees should develop complete ethics programs.
“If ethics is important to you, it should be part of your evaluation program. If it’s so important, evaluate people on it. If it’s so important, create incentives for it. If it’s so important, have training. If it’s so important, have leaders talk about it. It isn’t just this thing you do once in a classroom, it’s a discussion that happens regularly, and it’s rewarded when it happens.”
In his current research, Palmer is turning his attention to ethics in the classroom, but again looking at the influence of leaders. He’s analyzing survey data from students, and developing a measure of their unethical efficacy – how confident they are that they can cheat successfully. By comparing measures from the same students at the beginning and end of a semester, he wants to identify what instructors did to effect change. From that, he hopes to identify actions instructors could take that would make students less confident of their ability to cheat and get away with it.
“They’ve developed the confidence to do it and get away with it, and they will carry it through college and off into the working world, and that’s just a shame if that happens. So we have an opportunity here to maybe talk about ethics and get them to think twice, and maybe, maybe break the cycle,” he said.
Arguably, Palmer’s twin focus on leadership and ethics couldn’t be more timely. Not only have military actions around the globe created a need for more leaders and stronger ethics, but recent controversies such as the death of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray have put a spotlight on law enforcement officials in the United States.
Palmer said there is a greater need than ever for leadership from people in authority.
“When you’re in another country, or when there are civilians at risk, you’re in a combat environment. The decisions of leaders have potential to impact the lives of a lot of folks. And if we can make better leaders, it has a serious effect on the safety of our own soldiers, and also the safety of the people who get stuck in the middle of these kinds of conflicts.”
As an example, he describes the Iraqi surveyor who painted the landscape on his office wall.
“The story he told was that in Iraq, with Saddam as president, you weren’t allowed to dream,” he says. “He was very serious and he said ‘You know, (in Iraq) you say you have a dream, and your dream is that you’re going to become the president of Iraq, and you share that dream with somebody. What happens is that the word gets out, the police show up, and you disappear.’ That’s what he meant, that you can’t dream.”
The man’s words made it clear how much depended on American leaders doing their jobs, and doing them right, Palmer said.
“Getting that perspective was a reminder that we do have an opportunity to do some work here that’s more than just fighting a war or overthrowing a dictator. We have an opportunity to maybe improve the future.”
Noel F. Palmer
Title: Assistant professor, Management
College: Business and Technology
Education: Bachelor of Science, mechanical engineering, U.S. Military Academy, 1995; Master of Arts, business, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2007; Ph.D., management, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2013.
Years at UNK: Five
Career: Battalion Commander, 12th Battalion, 104th Regiment, U.S. Army Reserves, present; Brigade Executive Officer, 372nd Engineer Brigade, U.S. Army Reserves, 2014-15; G7 Senior Technical Engineer, 372nd Engineer Brigade, U.S. Army Reserves, 2013-14; Officer in Charge, 600th Engineer Facilities Detachment, U.S. Army Reserves, 2011-13; Engineer Planner, U.S. Forces Afghanistan (Kandahar), 2010-11; Adjunct instructor, Department of Management, UNK, 2010; Mechanical Engineer, Facility Engineer Team 16, U.S. Army Reserves, 2005-10; Project Manager/Estimator, American West Construction, Denver, 2004-05; Company Commander, B/244th Engineer Battalion, Tikrit, Iraq, 2003-04; Plans Officer, 244th Engineer Battalion, U.S. Army Reserves, Denver, 2002-03; Project Manager/Estimator, TARCO Inc., Arvada, Colo., 2000-03; Assistant Brigade Engineer, 1-25 ID, Ft. Lewis, Wash., 1999-2000; Engineer Officer, 70th Engineer Battalion, Ft. Riley, Kan., 1996-99.
Family: Wife, Leane. Sons Evan, 15, and Luke, 10. Daughter, Emily, 13.
Hobbies/Interests: Spending time with family, Army Reserves
Honors/Awards: College of Business and Technology Outstanding Faculty Award for teaching, 2012-13.
Areas of research/specialization: Leadership, Ethical decision making
Courses taught: Organizational Behavior, Social Responsibilities of Business: Issues and Ethics
Recent Published Articles:
- “The Effects Of Leader Behavior On Follower Ethical Behavior: Examining The Mediating Roles Of Ethical Efficacy And Moral Disengagement,” doctoral dissertation, 2013.
- “Leader Development for Dangerous Contexts,” Leadership in Dangerous Situations: A Handbook for the Armed Forces, Emergency Services and First Responders, 2011.
- “Impact of Positive Psychological Capital On Employee Well-Being Over Time,” Journal Of Occupational Health Psychology, 2010.
- “The Managerial Relevance Of Ethical Efficacy,” Managerial Ethics: Managing the Psychology of Morality, 2010.
- “Engagement in Cross-Cultural Contexts: The Roles of Cultural Intelligence and Authentic Leadership,” International Journal of Leadership Studies, 2009.