Help Wanted: Leaders with Moral Courage

Right or WrongTake a few minutes today and stop and think about the issues highlighted by the following questions:

  • Think about the meetings that you are typically involved in where major decisions are cast. Is there anyone in these meetings with the courage to stand against the direction of the group?
  • Is anyone willing to take a stand against the all-too-common ego-driven, poorly constructed and potentially dangerous courses of action emerging from the process of real-time rationalization that unfolds in too many group settings?
  • Will anyone stand against the position of the highest-ranking person if his/her position is focused on the wrong issues…short-term gains, greed, and pleasing Wall Street, while ignoring the profound issues of personal and environmental safety and sanctity?
  • Are you capable of putting your job on the line in opposition to choices that reflect movement away from goodness?

If the answers are mostly no, it’s time ask and answer these additional questions:

  • What is it about our culture and our leadership that makes it difficult to say yes to some or all of the above?
  • Why might I struggle to be this person that stands up against the prevailing wisdom?

These questions speak to the practical application of concepts like values, ethics and leadership.  They also are barometers of organizational culture, character and the personal characteristics of your moral or social courage.

It’s nice to think that most people and most organizations if given the choice between clear right and wrong would opt for right, but reality and a solid decade of scandals, horrendous decisions and now, environmental disasters, suggests that we’re not ready to declare victory on this issue.

Moral Courage:

In case you’ve not tripped across the phrases moral character or social character, they are described in various venues as:

the ability to put ethics into action. It means standing up and standing out in defense of principle, even when others are standing aside.”


The ability to act rightly in the face of popular opposition, shame, scandal or discouragement.”

Situations such as ignoring the dangers of a failed back-up system in an undersea oil well because of time and money pressures, or, launching a space shuttle due to public relations pressure in spite of data that says the potential for disaster is high are obvious examples where moral courage failed.

And while your issues might lack the potential for grand disasters and widespread loss of life or damage to the environment, there are many, many situations with high-stakes that scream for someone with the courage to stand up and cry “foul.”

Sources of Moral Courage in Business:

  • Moral courage in an organization starts at the top, with clearly articulated values and leaders that live, act, enforce and teach those values.  And of course, it goes way beyond those important issues.
  • Hiring practices need to identify individuals that understand and have displayed moral courage in other settings.
  • Compensation frameworks have to be carefully crafted to reinforce values and moral courage and not to tempt or overtly encourage people to violate those values in pursuit of revenue and income.
  • Decision frameworks need to relentlessly challenge individuals and teams to think through potential adverse impacts and to call out cases where the risk of moving away from goodness is high.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Moral courage may sound lofty and not actionable or teachable, but I would argue just the opposite. I would also argue that it is our absolute obligation as leaders to display and foster this type of behavior and to reward examples that support moral courage and severely punish those that violate it.

Admittedly, the words are easy and the work of building or changing a culture to reflect one where moral courage is the order of the day is difficult.  Hey, no one said that leading was supposed to be easy.  Anyone can point fingers and make excuses.  On the other hand, people worthy of being called leaders accept responsibility, make the difficult calls for the right reasons and avoid the temptations that so easily derail so many of us.

By | 2016-10-22T17:11:53+00:00 May 26th, 2010|Career, Decision-Making, Leadership|8 Comments

About the Author:

Art Petty is a coach, speaker and workshop presenter focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. When he is not speaking, Art serves senior executives, business owners and high potential professionals as a coach and strategy advisor. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.


  1. Hi Art – my 1st comment to your excellent blog. Your important post could not be more timely. How many studies and surveys do we need to convince leaders and senior management that most workplace cultures are in deep trouble?

    Disengaged seems too small a word to describe workers today. People are scared, angry and resentful. Yes, they may be working 19th century hours to keep their jobs and because most employees are committed to doing a good job – but this is not sustainable.

    In a recent conference workshop we did on Trust, only 1/4 of the audience said they trust their managers and their organizations. About 1/3 said they will leave their jobs as soon as the market is more mobile.

    Accountability, transparency, responsibility and above all MORAL Courage is desperately needed at this time. Nothing less will reconnect and re-engage workers. They’ve seen and heard it all, their cynicism is palpable.
    Thx for a great post!

    • Art Petty May 26, 2010 at 2:00 pm - Reply

      Louise, thanks so much for reading and commenting! Great to have you here. Your statistics are sobering to say the least, and reflective of serious problems with leaders and leadership. -Art

  2. Michael Ray Hopkin May 26, 2010 at 2:11 pm - Reply

    Art, nice post and very fitting for today’s workplace. It’s can be difficult to stand up for the right things when the people at the top are the ones making the call.

    The thing that’s worked best for me as a leader is to encourage people to push back and bring up things they feel are out of line. When people know their leader not only is willing to hear but also expects them to push back, they are much more inclined to do so. This leads to increased productivity and a much more pleasant and fulfilling workplace.


    • Art Petty May 26, 2010 at 3:17 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Michael! Your employees are/have been fortunate people to work for someone with your character and willingness to pay attention. -Art

  3. Robert Comer May 26, 2010 at 4:26 pm - Reply

    You give give a lot of great advice about doing the right thing;
    not always an easy decision. I have been faced with tribal politics over the years that would challenge my own moral decisions. I always tried to do the moral and ethical decision, not just to protect myself but the tribe as well. I can think of only one time it didn’t work out. Still I feel better about myself for doing the right thing.

    Great post Art!

  4. mark allen roberts May 26, 2010 at 4:45 pm - Reply

    Great Blog,

    I often have to fight the group think myself. It is much easier not to be the company Heretic, but the moral courage route takes guts.
    It all comes down to what you are chasing…Numbers? Or do you have a passion to make a difference in the lives of your internal and external customers.

    Perhaps Moral courage is what separates the market leaders from the rest?

    I wonder, does morale courage slip when business declines or get stronger?

    Mark Allen Roberts

  5. Kevin Adkins USMC(Ret) April 4, 2012 at 8:14 pm - Reply

    I would like to add to your Moral Courage expressions to your audience through a writing that was found on a rations container during the Vietnam Conflict, authored by an unknown Marine (unknown location within Vietnam and unknown dat).

    “A Marine willing to terminate his life during a fire fight should be no less willing to terminate his career through the candid, professional expressions to his seniors, whether solicited or not. The risk is not to the critic, but to the Corps if there were no critics.”

    This writing has hung on my wall and I am glad to see some one else discuss the flaw that many turn a blind eye too in every industry. The aforementioned writing is an excellent facilitator to character building and sustainment as it serves as a reminder to those who read it as the enter my work space; “Rank, position, billet, nor authority makes you right; experience, integrity, and moral courage to travel the difficult path does.”

    Respectfully and Semper Fidelis,

    Kevin Adkins USMC(Ret)

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