Courage in the Corridors

In the coming months, I’ll be posting a series of columns about public sector leadership that are from my web site GovLeaders.org. This first one, by Ray Blunt, is about combatting the culture of fear that exists in too many workplace. Your comments are most welcome! – Don

By Ray Blunt

Before Mel Gibson caught the attention of the movie-going public in telling the Easter story, he directed another historic story, that of the Scottish patriot William Wallace. Wallace is revered in legend as a hero, fighting for the right against all the odds. His courage in so doing is embodied in the movie’s title—Braveheart—denoting a man of surpassing courage. He had a brave heart.

Diagnosing Fear
While public service leaders may use pens instead of swords, they are not without the need for courage also. When faced with how to describe those they would follow to another job if asked, most of the aspiring leaders I have worked with over the years have cited courage as clearly in their Top 10. They see few, if any, organizations where fear is not lurking about.

Some of the symptoms of fear in an organization include a widespread reluctance to:

* speak of the “unmentionables,” (and every organization knows what they are—just ask privately);
* make decisions that are known to be politically charged, (small p or capital P);
* speak the truth to power (the parable of the emperor’s clothes is not simply a fairy tale); and
* speak the truth about performance shortcomings to subordinates.

Followers say they want leaders who will make the tough decisions and not study them to death. They want leaders of principle who will take risks to stand for what is right and to be a blocking back for those with less power or rank. They want a climate where speaking the unmentionable truth is not viewed as an aberration but as a matter to be encouraged. And they want leaders who would appreciate such honesty, even about themselves.

Speaking the Truth to Power
In a memorable scene in the Oscar-winning movie, A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More, the senior civilian leader in England, is visited by King Henry VIII. Henry is on a mission to persuade his Chancellor to back the annulment of his marriage in order to marry again to have an heir. Despite appeals by the King to both friendship and fear, Thomas More cannot do so. We struggle with him as his loyalty and trepidation war with his conscience. He plaintively asks why with everyone else supporting the decision, Henry needs his approval. The telling reply, “Thomas, you are an honest man, and more importantly, everyone knows you are an honest man.”

So how then do leaders learn when to speak the truth to power and to be courageous in the face of potential bureaucratic retribution? How do they drive fear out of their organization?

Learning Courage
The one sector of government that does explicitly value courage is the one in which life or death situations are part of the job description. The military and the law enforcement components of government both place a premium on courage—certainly in times of operational stress and intensity of war. They train people in “near combat” situations to instill courage in leaders and followers alike.

Yet even civilian agencies view key decisions and new policy initiatives as “combat,” apt to draw retaliation for the wrong position or for crossing a politically favored leader. Even senior leaders quail at the thought of (appropriately) firing a recalcitrant performer for fear of an accusation of discrimination or abuse that may stick forever. What to do?

Prepare leaders to act with courage in the face of opposition and train followers to speak the truth to power. Make it a part of the fabric of the organization. But this is easier said than done.

Here are some tips from people of courage:

* Speak openly and honestly about the climate of fear. It is amazing how simply naming the beast defangs it. If what people now whisper becomes a matter for normal conversation, it somehow loses its power.

* Encourage employees to speak the truth to power. One practice that I learned the hard way was to ask people to tell me what I was doing wrong—I could not change what I was doing without their honesty. I can well remember being informed that I sometimes came across as arrogant. That hurt, but it was on target, and I’ve never forgotten that gift of courage and honesty.

* Model what is desired. Senior leaders need to run interference for their employees and not use them as scapegoats when things go wrong. It is all too easy to blame a lower level employee for a mistake than to own up and say that what happens in my organization stops with me.

* Put it on your mentoring agenda. Offer protégés a way to discuss and anticipate “combat” and the challenges that come with power. Be honest and transparent about your own struggles with fear.

The truth is, few matters of conscience or belief are career ending (as we often fear). Teaching and modeling courage are best accomplished by putting rising leaders in positions where courage is encouraged (built into the heart) thereby giving them the confidence to speak the truth to power, and survive to tell the tale. Prepare them now for the tougher choices they will encounter in the future, when political winds blow strong and the career consequences seem higher.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn once faced down the former Soviet Union, almost as a lone voice. His words still ring true today: “One word of truth outweighs the whole world.” Speak the truth to power and help those behind you to do so as well.

So, what do you think? Are there “unmentionables” in your organization that could be more openly discussed? Do you have any good stories of where a leader or a follower spoke the truth to power? Do you have some thoughts on how we can do a better job of driving fear out of an organization? Or, about developing and encouraging rising leaders to embody courage?

Ray Blunt is currently the Associate Director and Fellow at the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation and Culture. For the past 12 years he has served as a leadership consultant and teacher for the Council for Excellence in Government and the Federal Executive Institute as well as for several government and non-profit organizations. He spent 35 years in public service in the US Air Force and the US Department of Veterans Affairs. He is B.J.’s husband of 43 years and the father of two grown children, and grandfather of five aspiring servant leaders.

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Mark Danielson

Great post Don, thank you for sharing that.

I especially believe in the Model what is desired. When advisers, consultants, trainers, experts etc. talk about “courage,” that is what they mean.

There are always “unmentionables” in the way of change and growth. Say your piece. That’s why we’re here. And that’s the truth. Again, great post. – MD

Kenneth Watkins

Thank you Mr. Jacobson,

I write this publicly, but I speak to you directly. This courage, or better still, this type of courage you speak is as ethereal as it is necessary. I say much of this from personal experience, because I had an extremely beautiful military career (enroute to Valhalla; I digress) severely wound by exhibiting this behavior. You know, speaking truth to power and standing stoically on moral high ground.

I really appreciate that you would lay out the fundamental identity of this type behavior most especially in the “Thomas More” example. I believe he was in mortal danger as a function of his resistance, also.

However, I believe your example about Mr. Solzhenitsyn brings it home best, because upon adopting this type behavior in a legitimate and forthright manner you absolutely become isolated, and if you are of inferior stock, ostracized, too.

However, the beauty of this type condition is that time and circumstance can in fact vindicate you, the provision being that you are fortunate enough to stay around until it occurs.

In most case, people like that don’t always get the glory, credit, adoration or basic human regard that is deserving of this most noble posture.

In truth, when, or if you or anyone decides to take this posture, the isolation and challenge can be so stark as to break a lesser person’s resolve and have them question their values.

I submit to you it takes particular stock. Truth be told, sometimes these people are hard to distinguish from “malcontents” but those brave others that objectively and clearly analyze that intrepid and noble soul’s motives find the chrysalis of honesty that should be nurtured and preserved.

Again, thank you.

“the Pragmatic Bohemian”

“Being right ain’t no bulletproof vest”
Ray Liotta, “Figgsy”
“Copland” – 1997

Don Jacobson

Ken – Thank you for your beautifully stated comments.

You’re absolutely right that speaking truth to power can crush a person. It can also make him/her stronger if they are willing and able to weather the storm and learn from the experience. It sounds you got stronger.

One thing is certain: speaking truth to power is a difficult and often scary thing to do.

Leaders also have a significant responsibility in all this. Leaders need to hear the truth if they have any hope of being effective, and there is a great deal they can do to create a climate where their people will be willing to bring them difficult truths.

I strongly recommend Ira Chaleff’s book The Courageous Follower. It talks about the importance of showing loyalty and support to the boss most of the time in order to help cultivate a relationship of trust. If an employee can create that kind of bond with the boss, they boss may well be more willing to listen when the employee brings him/her bad news.

All the best,

Ray Blunt

MD, Ken, Don, BNernadette,

You “get it” and it is not just a throwaway line or an idealistic bowl of pablum. Over and over again, if someone could have spoken the truth so that others could hear (the subject of another article) so much damage could have been avoided. There is hope, so keep persisting.