Moral Courage & Ethical Behavior

  • Published
  • By Brig. Gen. Darryl W. Burke
  • 82nd Training Wing commander
If I were to walk into just about any shop on base and say, "We're under attack--grab a weapon and follow me," I'm confident most people would do just that. I've spent enough time in the AOR and watching our Airmen in combat to know that we don't lack physical courage.

But what would happen if I walked into your office and announced the worst idea you had ever heard? How many people would have the moral courage to speak up and say, "Sir, that's not a good idea, and here's why..."

Moral courage is every bit as important as physical courage, though it's not always found in great supply.

At home station, the need for physical courage is comparatively rare. The need for moral courage is great, however. Our business is complex and specialized, and a lot of people--complete with ideas of varying quality--have a vested interest in what we do.

When those ideas are good, we need to have the sense to adapt our way of thinking. When those ideas are bad, we need to have the moral courage to push back--respectfully and with facts.

Does speaking up when a general officer, colonel or chief presents a questionable idea involve some personal risk? Sure it does--that's why it's called moral courage.

With few exceptions, though, people don't reach those senior levels by consistently ignoring good advice and making bad decisions. Instead, they are typically successful because they listen to smart people, adjust their vision and move forward.

But it's important not to confuse moral courage with brashness. If you're going to take a stand, make sure you have your facts straight and that your argument is sound. An unfounded opinion isn't likely to get you very far.

Which leads to an important corollary: if you have moral courage and take a position on issues, sooner or later you're going to be just plain wrong. We're human, so that's just the way it is.

Leaders have to exercise wisdom of a different flavor--the courage to let people be wrong. Sometimes we're too hard on good people who are sincerely trying to do the right thing, but who make an honest mistake.

Not that mistakes shouldn't have consequences; but those consequences need to be reasonable and in the teaching spirit. If you hammer people when they speak up for their point of view, pretty soon they won't speak at all--and you'll lose the value of their advice.

It's also important to remember that there's a big difference between being wrong and being unethical. Selfish, irresponsible or dishonest actors can quickly suck the oxygen out of an environment of trust. An honest mistake is one thing; being lazy, underhanded or deceitful is something else entirely.

There is a very good reason why Integrity is the first of our core values. We have to be able to trust each other to act in good faith. Every aircrew member trusts his or her life to the maintainers who work on their aircraft. Every person in the AOR trusts his or her life to the security forces on the perimeter. In the training environment, every commander, flight chief and section supervisor trusts us to deliver technically superior Airmen.

Leaders trust their people to do the right thing and act in good faith.

As a commander, I can accept someone being wrong or making a mistake if they are acting in genuine good faith. I've been passionately wrong about issues once or twice in my own career, and was fortunate to have leaders who made it a learning experience for me rather than a career-damaging event.

As I've written before, none of us can do this alone. "We" is a much stronger word than "I," and we need everyone's ideas and opinions to be successful. Ethical behavior and integrity are critical to the open exchange of ideas, and create an atmosphere where people are more likely to muster the moral courage to speak up. And that benefits everyone.