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.