Reflections on Learning to Lead with Moral Courage (2021 Cove Competition)By Claire Withrington October 19, 2021
2021 Cove Competition - 4th Place
What is moral courage?
morals plural noun
- Standards of behaviour; principles of right and wrong based on personal values.
According to Osswald et al (2010), moral courage refers to the willingness of an individual to challenge other individuals or systems in order to advocate for their (or their organisation’s) moral values, usually at a personal cost.
It is this risk of personal social cost which distinguishes moral courage from other prosocial behaviours. In some cases, individuals in the workplace risk ostracism, reprimand, or even their position and reputation when they exhibit moral courage.
It is my understanding that moral courage can be considered the primary vehicle for the application of integrity – coincidently one of the championed Australian Defence Force values (Australian Government: Department of Defence, 2021).
What does it have to do with leadership?
Research conducted by Emler & Cook (2001) indicates that integrity, and hence the moral courage to apply it, is globally understood to be a key aspect of quality leadership across all sectors.
With regard to Defence, integrity and moral courage can be specifically related to several of the Principles of Army Leadership, including:
- Know yourself and seek improvement
- Seek and accept responsibility
- Lead by example
- Provide direction, and
- Make sound and timely decisions
For example, moral courage can range from pointing out all of your own “fixes” during an AAR after completing your much-anticipated (and feared!) platoon lead, all the way up to confronting your superiors when their actions don’t align with the highest ideals of the ADF.
Despite the vast spectrum across which moral courage can be applied in the military, research consistently highlights positive outcomes – including the promotion of healthy followership, definition of moral and ethical boundaries for peers and subordinates, indications of strength of personal character, inciting of loyalty and trust within teams, as well as confidence in the capability of the leader in question (Palanski & Yammarino, 2009).
In addition, such behaviour is also considered beneficial for the organisation as a whole, beyond the improved conduct of operations and practice of profession, as research shows that organisations with a strong reputation for encouraging integrity are more likely to attract candidates of higher calibre, and promote societal support (Sweeney, 2007).
Hence, it can be said that moral courage is imperative to quality military leadership and the continuing development of Australia’s Defence capabilities.
What have I learned about moral courage?
My personal experiences as a cadet at RMC Duntroon so far have served to reinforce my belief in the relationship between moral courage and outstanding leadership; and highlighted the importance of knowing myself in order to truly understand my personal values, morals, and motivations.
Something that I have discovered during my, albeit brief, time at RMC thus far is that courage comes in many forms – physical, emotional, intellectual, and social to name a few – but moral courage stands out for me as one of the most difficult forms of courage to exhibit, because right doesn’t always make might.
But I have found that moral courage can be found in even the smallest of acts, such as owning up to your own mistakes – even when staying quiet means they may go unnoticed.
What does this all mean?
I believe that practicing moral courage as a leader in today’s ADF means being prepared to fall on one’s face every now and then – sometimes the sting of embarrassment seems to far outweigh the glow of knowing you did the right thing.
Exceptional leadership calls for the courage to be vulnerable, and a willingness to live and act congruent to one’s highest values.
This can be difficult when you consider how volatile, multifaceted, and complex our working environment is – and the fact that a leader will at some stage be confronted with a choice to compromise on some of their morals in order to uphold others.
The ADF requires its members to be of exemplary moral standing, with the courage to defend those morals when called upon, and the institutional resources and systems to support this.
I believe leaders can develop and practice moral courage through self-awareness, self-mastery, and by acting in congruence with, and sometimes even challenging, the values and moral codes of themselves and their organisations.
Australian Government: Department of Defence. (2021). Defence at a Glance. About | Department of Defence: Australian Government. Retrieved October 14, 2021, from https://www1.defence.gov.au/about/at-a-glance
Emler, N., & Cook, T. (2001). Moral integrity in leadership: Why it matters and why it may be difficult to achieve. In B. W. Roberts & R. Hogan (Eds.), Personality psychology in the workplace (pp. 277–298). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/10434-011
Osswald, S., Greitemeyer, T., Fischer, P., & Frey, D. (2010). What is moral courage? Definition, explication, and classification of a complex construct. In C. L. S. Pury & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), The psychology of courage: Modern research on an ancient virtue (pp. 149–164). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/12168-008
Palanski, M.E. & Yammarino, F.J. (2009). Integrity and leadership: A multi-level conceptual framework. The Leadership Quarterly. 20 (3). Pp 405-420.
Sweeney, P. (2007). Chapter 14: Trust: The Key to Combat Leadership. D, Crandall (Ed.). Leadership Lessons from West Point. San Francisco, CA. Jossey-Bass.