Featured Article: Moral Courage and Intelligent Disobedience
Moral Courage and Intelligent Disobedience
by Ted Thomas and Ira Chaleff
The military needs men and women who have courage–the physical courage to go into battle, to overcome fear in the face of bodily injury or death, mental pain, and lifelong disabilities. Militaries run on physical courage. Without it, they run from a fight and surrender. Many sources quote Aristotle as saying, “Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees the others.” Courage is a primary virtue, as all other virtues require it.
There is another type of courage the military needs, but it is hard to measure or even define–moral courage. The following words of Robert F. Kennedy are as salient today as they were in June of 1966 when he spoke them in Cape Town, South Africa. “Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality of those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.” Bravery in battle is needed, but so is the courage to stand up for what is right and against what is immoral, unethical, or illegal.
A critical application of moral courage is knowing when and how to disobey–which can be thought of as intelligent disobedience. This involves an ability to work within the system to maintain standards and uphold moral values. Organizational culture and operational pressures can sometimes cause the values of people to become blurred when the mission becomes more important than virtues. These can take us down the slippery slope of ends justifying means. Good people and good Soldiers can do bad things in these situations…
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Ted Thomas is Director of the Department of Command and Leadership in the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Thomas graduated from the United States Military Academy and served in various command and staff positions before retiring. He received a master’s from the University of Illinois, and a Ph.D. from Missouri University of Science and Technology.
Ira Chaleff is president of Executive Coaching & Consulting Associates in Washington, DC. He is the author of The Courageous Follower, now in its third edition, and co-editor of The Art of Followership, part of the Warren Bennis Leadership Series. His latest book, Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told to Do Is Wrong, was named the best leadership book of 2015 by the University of San Diego.