Where Is Courage?

By Lieutenant Commander Kevin E. Lunday, U.S. Coast Guard

By teaching, promoting, and measuring future individual performance against these leadership competencies, the Coast Guard will define the behavior of future Coast Guard leaders at all levels of the organization. But although the course for leadership development into the next century has been set, the Coast Guard has left out one of the recognized hallmarks of successful leadership: courage .

Courage as an Essential Leadership Trait

The Coast Guard has failed to include courage in its definition of leadership, even though courage is crucial to the character of any successful leader in the profession of arms. This is even more remarkable because the Coast Guard always has valued leaders who exhibit courage. To understand why courage is so essential to the character of a leader, we must define it. Courage comes in two forms: physical and moral. Physical courage is overcoming fear of bodily harm and doing your duty. Moral courage is doing the right thing regardless of the consequences; the willingness to take risks and pursue the proper course of action despite the threat of failure.

Physical courage . The strength to act in the face of personal danger to attain an objective is more than a leadership trait—it is a fundamental quality of American character. Americans despise cowardice in any form and admire acts of physical courage throughout society. For the profession of arms, physical courage takes on an even higher importance. Military leaders frequently operate in an environment fraught with physical danger and must have the courage not only to act, but to lead others effectively to accomplish the mission despite personal danger. Physical courage has been a hallmark of Coast Guard history and a proud tradition that continues today: the E-4 rescue swimmer who jumps from a helicopter into 25 foot seas to rescue four persons from a sinking vessel; the junior officer or chief petty officer who leads a team on a high-risk boarding of an unidentified vessel at night in the Caribbean; the E-6 surfman who risks his motor lifeboat and crew on the treacherous bar to rescue a foundering vessel. These are not occasional displays of physical courage by Coast Guard personnel; this is our daily bread and butter.

Physical courage is so ingrained and valued in the Coast Guard's culture that it's easy to overlook its absence from LDP's list of leadership competencies. But because of its very importance, the Coast Guard must ensure it is part of the future definition of a leader, otherwise its omission may signal the beginning of an unintended lack of emphasis that may have long-term negative effects. Ridiculous? Maybe today, but where will a ship arrive after steering one degree off course for 1,000 miles?

Moral courage . Moral courage is doing the right thing when it is unpopular, taking an action based on your convictions knowing that the action may not be in your own best interests, and having the strength to take risks in spite of the fear of consequences. Moral courage is essential to leadership because a leader's duty is to act selflessly and to place the mission, good of the organization, and welfare of subordinates above personal gain. The moment a supervisor's top priority becomes career advancement, that person is no longer a leader.

One may argue that moral courage—although not mentioned in the leadership competencies or their accompanying behavior—nevertheless is implied. There are behaviors under three competencies that can be linked to moral courage. "Responsibility and accountability" encourages us to take ownership of our areas of responsibility; "aligning values" emphasizes the need to align your personal behavior with the Coast Guard's core values and hold peers and subordinates accountable to the core values; and "personal conduct" means we must personify high standards of honesty, integrity, trust, openness, fairness, and compassion; be self-motivated, professional, and results-oriented; and have confidence in our own abilities and ideas.

These competencies clearly address responsibility and accountability for actions, but the listed behaviors fail to capture the essence of moral courage. Responsibility may mean taking an action demanded of one by duty, which closely relates to the definition of moral courage, or it may mean being answerable for one's actions or the actions of others, which is the definition of accountability. But accountability and moral courage are not synonymous; in fact, they often may conflict directly. For example, being accountable means to be liable for or to suffer the consequences of one's actions. Accountability alone increases fear of consequences. Without the courage to overcome that fear, a leader may be reluctant to act even when it is the right thing to do. Moral courage, therefore, is greater than the sum of responsibility and accountability; it is the glue that binds these and other traits of a leader together. The noted military historian S. L. A. Marshall aptly described it:

Quiet resolution. The hardihood to take risks. The will to take full responsibility for decision. The readiness to share its rewards with subordinates. An equal readiness to take the blame when things go adversely. The nerve to survive the storm and disappointment and to face toward each new day with the score sheet wiped clean, neither dwelling on one's successes nor accepting discouragement from one's failures. In these things lie the great part of the essence of leadership, for they are they are the constituents of that kind of moral courage that has enabled one man to draw many others to him in any age.

Moral courage is even more critical to leadership than physical courage. As leaders are promoted and assume greater responsibility, they are less likely to face dangerous situations that will test their physical courage. Conversely, those same leaders increasingly will face greater challenges with more severe consequences, requiring stronger displays of moral courage.

An excellent vignette on the importance of moral courage and its admitted failure at the highest level of military leadership is that of General Harold K. Johnson, Army Chief of Staff from July 1964 to July 1968 during the escalation of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Troubled over the administration's mishandling of the war and interference with the military, General Johnson had prepared himself to resign on principle rather than continue to participate in what he believed was the improper conduct of the war. He instead decided not to resign. When asked years later about his decision, General Johnson emotionally stated:

I made the typical mistake of believing I could do more for my country and for the Army if I stayed in than if I got out. I am now going to my grave with that lapse in moral courage

The Gathering Clouds

The absence of courage from the LDP is more than an academic argument over the use of words. There are already initial indicators that, although unintended and undesired by current service leaders, moral courage may be losing ground as a leadership trait in the Coast Guard's culture.

From 1993 to 1995, the Coast Guard conducted an extensive Workforce Cultural Audit (WCA) to identify and break down barriers to achieving career success in the service. After analyzing the data collected in 6,000 service-wide surveys, focus groups uncovered 25 root causes of the barriers to successful career development, 16 of which were directly related to leadership issues. The WCA then was used as a benchmark for designing the Leadership Development Program—for example, respect for others and diversity management was added as a leadership competency to address root causes of barriers to achieving diversity identified by the WCA.

Comparison of the WCA data and the leadership competencies, however, shows that there is one area of concern that was not directly addressed: reluctance to take risks and fear of consequences.

According to the Workforce Cultural Audit report, fewer than half of the participants believed the Coast Guard encouraged them to take reasonable risks to improve performance. Further, 56% of the survey participants believed that personnel who take risks that have the wrong result face shortened careers. These hard data are supported by a surge of recent discussions among service members about a growing epidemic of "career fear," particularly among the officer corps.

Career fear essentially is an individual's reluctance to rock the boat or stand up for principle for fear of harming the opportunity for advancement or promotion. Whether this recent discussion indicates a real trend or is merely misperception is irrelevant, for the resulting infection among personnel and effect on the organization will be the same: leaders at all levels increasingly shying away from taking risks in order to preserve career success.

This fear of failure or its consequences frequently is cited by experts as one of the primary causes of low performance in an organization, but how persons react to fear—rather than the fear itself—is the true cause of low performance. These same experts argue that fear must be eliminated from the working environment by identifying and addressing its cause.

But fear is present in any organization, and in many cases it may be impossible to control or eliminate its cause from the working environment. Coast Guard working environments often are inherently challenging or adverse, and fear-whether fear of bodily injury or of other consequences-is part of operating in those environments. Where it can be eliminated, the Coast Guard should do so. In all other circumstances, however, fear must be overcome by other means.

A military organization must cope with this inevitable fear, not by eliminating it, but by demanding that its leaders possess and exhibit the moral courage to act in spite of it. Lack of moral courage from leaders in a business organization may result in lower profits. In a military service, however, that same lack of courage is a growing cancer that, if unchecked, will lead to disastrous results.

Correct the Course of Leadership Development Now

The Coast Guard always has valued and required courage in its leaders. The Officer Evaluation Report, even after recent major revisions, still measures an officer's "ability to act ethically, courageously, and dependably and inspire the same in others." Certainly the Coast Guard did not intend to abandon courage as a leadership trait.

The Coast Guard should act now to ensure that courage remains a fundamental trait of future leaders at all levels in the service. That may seem an easy fix—just revise the LDP instruction to include courage as a leadership competency. However, the service must not only teach moral courage, it must continue to encourage, recognize, and nurture displays of moral courage by its personnel. When the service rewards leaders who pursue the right course of action even though it is unpopular, it inspires and motivates others to do the same. Does that mean there should be no consequences for risk-taking? No, because then accountability and responsibility for actions would be nonexistent. A successful leader can balance those traits and, if necessary, accept the consequences knowing that the course of action pursued was the right one—not right because it furthered one's career, but right for the greater purpose or principle.

The Coast Guard must continue to value moral courage among its leaders by demanding courage from its leaders at all levels in the organization and weeding out those who are ruled by fear rather than overcoming it. The men and women of Team Coast Guard deserve nothing less.

Lieutenant Commander Lunday , a 1987 graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, is legal advisor to USCG Maritime Law Enforcement School. He is a 1994 graduate of the Naval War College and has served as commanding officer of the USCGS Point Martin (WPB-82379) and operations officer of the USCGC Sweetgum (WLB-309).

 

 
 

Conferences and Events

2014 U.S. Naval Institute History Conference

Wed, 2014-10-01

The 2014 Naval History Conference is hosted by the U.S. Naval Institute and the U.S. Naval Academywith support from The William M...

Defense Forum Washington 2014

Newseum - Knight Conference Center

2015 WEST Conference

View All

From the Press

Taped Radio Interview

Mon, 2014-09-22

Guest Speaker

Tue, 2014-09-30

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership