Wednesday, January 19, 2011


The virtue that is essential to ethical, effective leadership We know courage when we see it. It's Wang Weilin, the young man who stands unflinchingly before a tank bearing down on him in Tiananmen Square. It's Harriet Tubman, who escapes from a plantation and then returns to help others to freedom. It's Marcus Luttrell, the Navy Seal who survives repeated attacks in Afghanistan yet somehow survives for the sake of his band of brothers. And it's you, anytime you overcome fear and make a difficult decision that puts doing the right thing -- and others -- before yourself. Our mission at the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies is to foster ethical, effective leadership. Ethical, effective action is impossible where courage is lacking. Who would follow a fearful leader? As St. Paul famously asked, "If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who will prepare himself for the battle?" Courage is essential to ethical leadership because it ensures that people will be justly treated regardless of the clamor of the crowd or the temptations of expedience. Courage is essential to effective leadership because it ensures that decisions will be implemented and goals will be met. Courage defined Aristotle famously defined courage as a virtue -- the golden middle between foolish recklessness on the one hand, and paralyzing timidity on the other. Plato, St. Augustine of Hippo, and St. Thomas Aquinas argued that courage is one of the cardinal virtues (along with prudence, temperance, and justice). Developing the cardinal virtues in our character is essential if we intend to live the good life. The term "cardinal" comes from the Latin cardo or hinge; the cardinal virtues can be seen as hinges upon which our moral life turns. When we act courageously, our life turns out for the better. When we act like a "craven coward" (to quote from the haunting title song of High Noon), our life turns out for the worse. A good, everyday definition of courage is Merriam-Webster's: it is the "mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty." By either definition -- Merriam-Webster's or Aristotle's -- courage is understood in relationship to fear: courage does not indicate the absence of fear. In fact, the absence of fear in the face of real danger usually indicates either a personality disorder or the lack of awareness or knowledge needed to cope with a situation. Courage involves overcoming fear to make tough decisions and get things done. Leaders need fortitude in three areas (1) We know courage when we see it. But courage first takes place out of sight, deep in a person's character. In their personal life, leaders need the ability to confront their inner weaknesses and deficiencies, anything that keeps them from doing what is right, effective, and for the team. It takes courage for a person to admit he or she has a problem, face down his or her inner demons, and do the hard work to change for the better. (2) In their public duties, leaders must have the capacity to make the tough decision -- the 51-49 decision -- and then to implement the decision regardless of the backlash of disappointed colleagues, arm-twisting special interests, and fickle public opinion. Leaders cannot become paralyzed for fear of disappointing people. Courage helps them stay focused on doing the ethical, effective thing. (3) Besides having the courage to confront one's weaknesses and make tough decisions, leaders need to possess the ability to revisit a decision they've already made, and to evaluate whether that decision needs to be revised or reversed. It takes courage to admit that you've made a mistake, apologize if necessary, and correct course. Whatever form it takes, courage is essential to ethical, effective leadership. Courageous leaders know fear and keep it under control. They also understand that it is not enough to know what to do (often a problematic thing in itself); they must also have the courage to do it. As Plutarch famously wrote, "Courage consists not in hazarding without fear, but in being resolutely minded in a just cause." "Profiles in Courage" from history, literature, and the cinema

The hall of fame in which we honor courageous men and women is vast, transcending our own narrow party, denomination, and predilection. We do not have to agree with everything a person stood for or worked toward to recognize heroic acts of courage at critical moments.

- As a university student, Sophie Scholl (see image at top) became a leader of the anti-war movement in Nazi Germany. Refusing to recant, she was guillotined by the Third Reich.

- Just one month in the Oval Office, President Gerald R. Ford pardoned his predecessor Richard Nixon even though he knew it would severely damage his chances of being elected two years later. - Admiral James Stockdale refused to give his North Vietnamese captors intelligence despite broken bones, excruciating torture, and emotional despair. - Martin Luther took on the entire Roman Catholic Church to protest its abuses and lack of serious reform. His famous words under the stress of a trial and potential execution became a trumpet call at the beginning of the modern era: Hier stehe ich. I kann nicht anders. "Here I stand. I can do nothing other." - Governor Sam Houston went against his own people on principle when the Civil War broke out. He did not want the Lone Star State to secede from the Union. He refused to swear the oath to the Confederacy and resigned from office instead. - In Sophocles' Antigone, the teenage girl Antigone did not bend when challenged to abandon her piety and sense of natural law, but stood up to her uncle, the king, in a man's world and an adult world. - Think of the courage it took Yuri Gagarin to be the first man in outer space. Many scientists feared that he would lose consciousness and die.

- In the Bhagavad Gita, the noble warrior, Arjuna, is filled with anguish when he is overtaken by fear that interferes with his ability to perform his highest duties. Much of the epic concerns his heroic confrontation with fear and duty.

- In High Noon, Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) must overcome his inner demons, rejection by his new bride Amy (Grace Kelly), the pride of deputy marshall Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges), and the cowardice of his churchgoing neighbors to do the right thing and confront Frank Miller and his gang.

I'll conclude with the words of the most eminent living British historian, Paul Johnson, speaking on the importance of courage to leadership: "You can have all the right ideas and the ability to express them. But if you haven't got guts, if you haven't got courage ... all the other virtues are no good at all. It's the central virtue."

For more on leadership, visit Also see my essay, "Democracy's Greatest Leaders -- Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill," for more on courage.

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