Moral courage

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Alexander Heyman
  • 71st Student Squadron commander

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- In today’s over-connected, always-on, instant-information society, it often seems as though rational thought and careful consideration are endangered species.

Social media, the blogosphere and the speed of the internet have accelerated the feedback loop to unbelievable speeds. People often pass judgment or offer their opinions without having, or even caring to have, the complete picture of a given situation.

Complex policy issues are boiled down into simple talking points and 140-character pronouncements which leave little time or possibility for reasoned discussion. Such times call for bold leaders possessing the moral courage to make the right decisions for the right reasons, regardless of the fallout or repercussions.

A particularly insightful leader with whom I was fortunate enough to serve taught me that there are two sides to every story. There is usually enough time to get the full picture before being forced to make a decision with only half the information.

While there are times for decisive and immediate action, there are also many times where diligent investigation and thought are crucial. After taking care to gather facts and learn the whole story, leaders are often forced to make difficult or unpopular decisions.

Restricting alcohol consumption following numerous DUIs in a unit punishes the many who have behaved responsibly, but may be necessary to send a strong message to the entire unit.

During a thorough investigation, following the threads of an incident involving misconduct may lead to evidence of wider crimes committed by other individuals and a broader scope than initially mandated.

Commanders are charged with ensuring good order and discipline within their units. This responsibility cannot be delegated, though it will often be endlessly criticized and analyzed by others.

Moral courage demands that leaders in such situations make the best decisions they can based on the most complete picture available while being fair and equitable with the application of military discipline and justice.

Hindsight, being clearer than foresight, often provides after-the-fact clarity to a situation that may have been absent as it was unfolding. New evidence, more complete explanations, and further consideration often suggest a different course of action would be more appropriate. In addition to moral courage, leaders must also have the humility to acknowledge missteps and take corrective actions when appropriate to rectify any errors.

The “System” does not always get things right, either. Sometimes good leaders are promoted and bad leaders are removed. But other times good leaders are left out to dry while bad leaders are “rehabilitated” and taken care of. I have seen both situations personally, and it is difficult to see great leaders marginalized or poor leaders covered for.

There is a danger here. These negative outcomes cannot be the sole means by which we judge the appropriateness of actions taken by leaders. Moral courage requires that we do the right thing, whether or not it is popular and regardless of eventual repercussions.

Our Air Force core values of integrity, service and excellence demand moral courage from our leaders. We must trust that they are doing the right thing, serving others before their own interests and making the very best decisions possible.

Though the System may not always recognize such leadership or protect such leaders, these are the men and women we need at all levels of our United States Air Force.