Wing commander discusses doing what's right

  • Published
  • By Col. Chris Crawford
  • 21st Space Wing commander
Few leaders are commended for putting up walls. In fact, in all the books I've read and classes I've attended, I've never seen wall-building promoted as a leadership technique. That's exactly what the mayor of a Japanese fishing village did, though. Mayor Kotaku Wamura made the construction of a 51-foot tall, 673-foot long seawall a priority in his 40-year tenure as mayor of Fudai. The wall, complete with floodgates, cost more than $30 million and took more than a decade to construct. He faced criticism from all sides, but believed the tall seawall was critical to protect the village and the people who lived there from a tsunami. In following his moral compass, he proved to be a highly effective leader and saved an entire community.

Wamura saw firsthand the devastation that a tsunami causes. He witnessed the carnage wrought on Fudai in 1933, and he vowed his community would not be devastated in that way again. While other villages built smaller seawalls and floodgates (all at a more reasonable and easily accepted cost), he insisted Fudai's wall be tall enough to offer maximum protection of the residents behind it. Construction of the wall began in 1972 and ended in 1984.

Kotaku Wamura recognized a real, tangible problem that needed to be corrected. It was a long-term problem, and one he would likely not have to deal with in his lifetime. He could have easily ignored the issue, and nobody would have thought less of him. In fact, he probably would have been better liked if he had acquiesced to a shorter wall - if he had not pressed the issue and endured accusations of wasteful spending, myopic focus on a grandiose project, and unjust acquisition of local land needed for construction. Knowing all this, he chose to do what he knew was right anyway.

The leader of this village did the right thing not because it was popular, accepted or easy, but simply because it was right. As a leader, he made an assessment of what was required and stuck to his guns. Not only did he do that, but he did the job completely. He could have convinced himself, and allowed his village to believe, a standard wall was sufficient. He could have given it a valiant effort, but backed off in the face of pressure. Instead, though, he achieved his goal and, in 1997, passed away knowing those he cared for and led for so long would be safe. He was not only a tenacious leader, but (in all likelihood) a morally evolved person.

Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg developed a theory that there are six stages to moral development tied to ways people make decisions. In the first two stages, a person acts to avoid punishment or out of pure self-interest. They seek to avoid negative consequences or to obtain just "what's in it for them." As they progress into the next two stages of development, a person will act to conform to social norms (i.e. to fit in with everyone else) and, eventually, out of a desire to comply with laws and social order. Wamura clearly reached above those levels to the fifth Kohlberg stage, where he reasoned for the common good of his people and chose the option best for the community as a whole.

Stage five also emphasizes compromise. While majority decisions and compromise certainly have their place (and are a vitally important tenet of democratic government), they are absent in Kohlberg's stage six. In this stage, people make decisions based on a set of universal ethical principles - the idea that they have an obligation to do what is universally right regardless of the social construct or their own comfort. I would argue Wamura displayed characteristics of this sixth stage in determining, despite outside influences, the right course of action and settling for nothing less.

The Kohlberg scale is a theory, not an absolute, and, in my opinion, a good leader will make decisions based on a variety of considerations within the scale - including norms, rule of law, the common good and fundamental ethics. That being said, it provides an interesting way to consider human behavior. As a leader, it also provides an additional means to "self-check" and ensures you are acting in a morally responsible way and teaching your Airmen to do the same. While Wamura may not have been familiar with Kohlberg, he certainly had the determination and strength to put "service before self" and do well by its measure.

If Wamura did not have a strong moral compass, his village would have been wiped out by the massive tsunami March 11, 2011. Instead, they lost only one person - a man who had ventured outside the wall after the earthquake to check his fishing boat. The 51-foot barrier blunted the force of the tsunami, and the small amount of water that got over the seawall did almost no damage. While other towns with smaller walls were destroyed, Fudai and its more than 3,000 residents were safe. Mayor Wamura is most often quoted for saying, "Even if you encounter opposition, have conviction and finish what you start. In the end, people will understand."

Following the tsunami, the residents of Fudai (many of whom previously opposed or did not appreciate the seawall) stopped to pay their respects at Wamura's grave. He built a wall, but in so doing became a leader of local fame and international distinction.