The morally courageous leader

Karl R. LaPan, President & CEO, The NIIC
Photo by Shutterstock

There are over 4.7 billion Google hits on the topic of leadership, but only 1.1% of those Google web hits speak about moral courage.

How do you show up when there’s a lot on the line? How do you react under criticism or intense pressure at work? When your team finds itself in a bind, what kind of leader are you? Do you a “take one for the team” or cower under pressure? It’s my deep-seated belief that the measure of a person can only be genuinely determined when a lot is on the line.

Consider the discourse happening politically when politicians call out a person’s record of voting “no” on spending money on amenities that everyone supposedly wants or needs or holding suppliers accountable for their promises or governance dysfunction in the non-profit sector where every vote taken by a board is unanimous, or abstaining from a key vote because it would be bad to have a recorded no vote, or not saying in public what you really think in private, or being dubbed an outlier for not going along with the crowd on a key community decision, priority or vote.

In other words, these situations present opportunities to display moral courage or moral cowardice. The former requires leaders to be unafraid to do what is right, regardless of the calculus. As the saying goes, “integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” Moral courage” means having the courage to do what’s right at the risk of personal harm”.

Even the U.S. Army recognizes that not all types of courage are equal or easy to develop. “The moral aspect of leadership—personally understanding, embracing, and inculcating ethical conduct in others is far more difficult to develop in leaders and can be far more time consuming,” Distinguished Military Professor of Leadership Joseph J. Thomas writes in a paper. “In spite of decades of highly publicized moral/ethical failures on the part of its military members, the DoD has not achieved a satisfactory method for addressing the moral development of servicemen and women.”

Whether in military or civilian life, moral courage as a habit requires a great deal of self-policing in one’s everyday life. Allowing yourself to lower your standards and make excuses can be a slippery slope. Compromising your integrity gets more comfortable and easier, and before long, you’ve lost touch with your moral fiber. Fall off the wagon for too long, and you find yourself less courageous in your thoughts, words, and deeds.

Moral courage also calls for taking stock of not just what we have done, but also our failures. Sometimes, choosing no action at all, especially in the face of difficulties, sends a powerful message in and of itself. Conversely, it should be mentioned that choosing to work in a certain way can pose inevitable consequences that can be detrimental to one’s career. That’s because some vocal pundits have power and influence. However, it might reaffirm your own sense of self and inspire others if you were willing to say “yes” and/or “no” with selflessness, confidence, and moral courage despite the peer consequences and not backing down from confrontation and constructive dissent. The focus should be taking action to promote the best interests of the organization and the people you serve.

In short, encouraging yourself to make the right choice under fire begins with making a promise to yourself that your moral principles are not for sale. While “remarkable and upbeat” are admirable, integrity is a decision, not an afterthought. By disagreeing with the majority opinion does not mean you are rigid and have preconceived positions, it just might mean you have a moral compass. Moral courage displayed by a leader is essential for internal alignment, personal congruence, and trust (strong followership). It also produces public confidence in your organization and shows your commitment and integrity are not for sale at any cost. True personal and organizational growth can only be achieved when you take a stand (regardless of whether it’s a popular position or not, and you are vulnerable and transparent in your interactions with others.

When have you been courageous (and what was it that allowed you to be), or when have you thought about being courageous and were unable to act in accordance to your personal values? 


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