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Monday, June 13, 2016

Alan Turing

Author's note: The following is taken from a larger paper prepared as part of a course taken for his pursuit of a Ph.D. through Milwaukee's Cardinal Stritch University. For this portion, the author was tasked with identifying and reflecting on a historical figure that in some way exemplified moral leadership. He chose Alan Turing, the subject of the 2014 major motion picture, The Imitation Game. 

Copyright 2016, Aaron Scott Robertson. All rights reserved.

Taken from "The Importance and Relevance of Moral and Ethical Principles in Leadership"
Aaron S. Robertson, MSM
April, 2016

Historical Exemplar: Alan Turing (1912-1954)

Alan Turing
Alan Turing
Most recently, with the release of the 2014 major motion picture, The Imitation Game, this author has come to find interest in the life and work of Alan Turing. Turing is generally considered to be the father of computer science, and he and his team are credited with saving countless lives during World War II when his Turing machine was able to finally crack the enigma code used by Nazi Germany (Grossman, Ostrowsky, and Schwarzman, 2014).

This author, without yet knowing very much about Turing’s life aside from what has been portrayed in the film, sometimes struggles to grasp his true intentions when pursuing the conceptualization and actual building of his enigma code-cracking machine. Much of the struggle rests on the fact that Turing never really showed emotion, and he was often detached from others, the result, perhaps, of some eccentricity and social awkwardness. Perhaps his detachment also stemmed from his homosexuality, in an attempt to conceal it from others, as it was considered a criminal act in England at the time, punishable by prison and/or chemical castration. His homosexuality was discovered by the authorities and publicly revealed later on, near the end of his life, merely by accident, when local police were investigating a burglary that had taken place at Turing’s home. The burglary turned out to be orchestrated by a friend of the man whom Turing had recently had an encounter with. Turing was convicted of gross indecency, and opted for chemical castration over prison time, eventually causing impotence (Grossman, Ostrowsky, et al., 2014; Editors, n.d.). But whatever the cause, or causes, of his detachment from others, it is often difficult to read Turing because of it.

Was his work on this machine truly a quest fueled by moral conviction and leadership, or was it merely an intellectual exercise for him – a series of simulations; a game – meant to take up time, just something to keep him occupied? Was it all purely for the greater good in his mind and heart, or could there have been at least some degree of intellectual arrogance at work – a need to prove himself right simply for the sake of proving himself right amidst a lot of doubt? It is difficult to tell, simply based on his detachment and lack of emotion. It must also be mentioned here that once the machine did work, Turing and his team could not dispatch Allied forces to intervene in every impending German attack or invasion. In order to hide from the Nazis the fact that the riddle of their code had been solved, the Turing team had to allow for the appearance of intervention or prevention by random chance, letting the Germans get away with some attacks and invasions – no doubt leading to known certain death for many – while having Allied forces show up for others. Allied forces appearing at every event would undoubtedly give away to the Nazis that their code was now known, and they would have then simply changed its settings, rendering the team’s two years of work to crack the code entirely useless. In the movie, Turing appears largely detached from all of this, as well, giving the appearance that this was all merely a numbers game for him, nothing more than an intellectual exercise consisting of mathematics and statistics (Grossman, Ostrowsky, et al., 2014).

Yet, on the other hand, Turing kept on enduring in the face of budget constraints, numerous technical failures and disappointments, and superiors that – literally and figuratively – wanted to pull the proverbial plug on the project, convinced that his invention can, and will, work. As is now known, it ultimately did, and the rewards of it working cannot be understated. By allowing the war – and consequently, more certain death for many – to continue on after the code was broken, it is estimated by historians that Turing and his team cut the length of the war by more than two years and saved some 14 million lives (Grossman, Ostrowsky, et al., 2014).

On another note, it is interesting to this author that Turing and his team, at least that this author is aware, are not enduring the scrutiny and criticism that Pius XII’s legacy is. The World War II-era pope is heavily criticized by Jewish groups, in particular, over claims that he did not do enough to save more Jews during the war. The Roman Catholic Church’s counterargument to these claims has always been that, had Pius more blatantly and openly criticized the Hitler regime, then perhaps that many more Jews would have perished in retaliation. The pontiff, the Church maintains, did all that he could do quietly and behind the scenes, and it is not in dispute that the Roman Church had saved a large number of the Jewish people. Similarly, the Turing team had to act in total secrecy behind the scenes, and had to knowingly and intentionally allow the war to continue to drag out with the ultimate strategic goal of actually cutting it short and saving countless millions of lives. But for the Turing team, it was not just Jews whose lives were at stake, and ultimately lost, while they continued to work behind the scenes to stop some attacks while letting others through, it was also their fellow countrymen – Brits – and troops and civilians representing all of the Allied forces.

This author cannot begin to imagine the toll that these decisions must have taken on the lives of Turing and his colleagues. For this author, Turing is an historical exemplar because, whatever the reasons, perhaps only fully known to him, he chose to use the talents and gifts granted to him for the greater good – but this was not certainly without great cost. And sadly, his life was taken far too early. We can only vividly dream and guess what other talents and contributions to society may have come from his powerful mind had he lived any longer. Turing died in 1954 at the age of 41 of an apparent suicide by cyanide poisoning (Grossman, Ostrowsky, et al., 2014; Editors, n.d.). In recent years, however, the official ruling of his death has been called into question, suggesting that the cyanide poisoning was accidental. Turing was known to work with cyanide frequently as part of his lab studies. Furthermore, he did not give the appearance that he was suicidal in his final days ( Editors, n.d.).


Grossman, N., Ostrowsky, I., Schwarzman, T. (Producers), & Tyldum, M. (Director). (2014). The imitation game [Motion picture]. United Kingdom: StudioCanal; United States: The Weinstein Company. Editors. (n.d.). Alan Turing biography. The website. Retrieved from

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