Nov 16 2017| Leadership | Values

The Role of Leaders in Creating a Culture of Moral Courage

The Centre for Army Leadership Conference 2017

by Phil Eyre Founder

Last month, I had the privilege of attending the Centre for Army Leadership’s 2017 Conference at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.

Attended by over 80 delegates, the event explored the topic of morally courageous leadership.

As we discussed our personal views of moral courage and the role of leadership in creating a culture of moral courage, four core themes emerged.


1.  Humility

According to The Right Honourable Jack Straw, humility is a crucial leadership attribute. When asked for his top four leadership tips, he replied ‘be prepared to be wrong’. 

During his opening address, Mr Straw shared examples of difficult decisions he had to make during his time as Foreign Secretary. He included instances where, with the benefit of hindsight, he regretted the direction he had taken.

However, he admitted that courage requires high-conviction decisions and a willingness to ‘see it through; take the heat’. 

Great leaders can strike a balance between seeing a high-condition decision through and being prepared to be wrong.

They are not so closed to the prospect of being wrong that they are blind. However, at the same time, they are not so indecisive that they are weak and ineffective.

Servant Attitude

Professor Tourish, Professor of Leadership and Organisation Studies at Sussex University, developed this idea further.

In a talk brimming with anecdotes from the banking industry, Professor Tourish made a strong case that proud, narcissistic CEOs are more likely to create the conditions for immense risk.

‘Businesses’, he said, ‘must not elevate CEOs to hero status.’ Too often, power corrupts and leaders start to believe they are invincible. They make demands for how others should treat them and switch the focus of the business from serving others to serving them.

Ultimately, this creates the conditions for failure. Risks are ignored or excused and any critical voice - however constructive - is dismissed, sometimes literally.


A critical factor in leadership success is learning from failure.

Dr Deborah Goodwin, Head of the Communication and Applied Behavioural Science Department at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, identified how humble leaders take personal responsibility for mistakes.

They focus on how they can improve rather than defending immediate criticism, and emerge stronger.

Appropriately Vulnerable

We observe a similar impact amongst our clients.

Those leaders that are open to being wrong take responsibility for mistakes and focus on leading their business forward prove more successful than their ‘impervious’ counterparts.

We also observe that many leaders would rather not show any vulnerability at all, believing that perceived weakness will result in loss of effectiveness.

Stephen Coles, CEO of SCT, an addictions recovery and homelessness charity, broached the question; ‘Have we lost our ability to be vulnerable as leaders?’.

Our work aims to help change this narrative so that leaders can be ‘appropriately vulnerable’.

By taking responsibility for weaknesses and harnessing strengths, they can see high-conviction decisions through to completion.


2.   Critical Thinking

Courageous decision making requires critical thinking from a multitude of perspectives.

Jack Straw acknowledged that, while some decisions require a quick response, leaders should draw from a variety of sources and perspectives before making a final decision.

Professor Tourish took this further and suggested that organisations should ‘institutionalise dissent’ by, for example, appointing a ‘devil’s advocate’ at each board meeting. The aim is that decision-makers are forced to consider perspectives that they would otherwise not think about.

In our work, we strongly advocate for businesses to intentionally incorporate alternative perspectives in their decision-making processes.

It is natural and comfortable to seek affirming perspectives, but this can leave us missing a vital insight that would otherwise contribute to a better decision.

I ran a team building offsite recently and observed how two distinct groups formed during the coffee break. The men and the women had neatly separated themselves into two distinct groups, without consciously intending to do so.

We are most comfortable when we are around like-minded people, but to lead well, we need to actively invite alternative perspectives.


3.   Developed in ‘Peacetime’

There are some spectacular examples of moral courage.

I am writing this as we approach Remembrance Day, immensely moved by stories of courage and sacrifice.

One that stands out is that of Desmond Doss, ‘Conscientious Objector’. Corporal Doss served with the US Army as a non-combatant field medic in Okinawa during World War II. Japanese forces attacked his unit, cutting down nearly every man. Doss rigged up a stretcher and, under fire, he retrieved each soldier - 75 of them - one at a time to safety.

Such stories of selfless action and courage are inspiring. Courage is developed in normal, less-dramatic ‘peacetime’ situations that we are presented with daily.

Doing the Right Thing

General Sir John Lorimer summarised moral courage as ‘doing the right thing, not just the easiest thing.’

This sentiment is not the preserve of ‘big’ situations. There are countless actions and choices that we make every day, and each is an opportunity to do the right thing; speaking well of others, not jumping the queue or meeting a promise all offer opportunities to build moral courage. 

Major Andrew Todd, the leader of two Gurkha Everest expeditions, described this brilliantly. He said that our ‘moral compass is like muscle memory’. We develop it every day, and when a complex event happens, we are prepared and our moral instincts kick-in.

Good leaders reflect on ‘peacetime’ decisions; their normal, everyday choices, correcting course where necessary. This builds a bank of morally courageous capital and healthy, productive instincts.


4.   Personal Risk in Service of Others

Moral courage always involves personal risk, usually in the service of others rather than self.

Lord Blair of Boughton was previously commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. He described a ‘career-threatening’ stance he had taken in pushing for a significant change in how the police dealt with rape investigations. This defied convention and challenged then-current statistics and approaches, but he was proven correct and eventually promoted.

There is always a personal risk when taking a morally courageous stance.

In one of our breakout workshops, we discussed whether we would intervene if someone were being intimidated on a train. We all knew the right answer, but recognised different potential risks, for example travelling with children.

Moral courage is almost always unconventional or unpopular placing careers, friendships and other opportunities at risk. Assessing the risk can help us to determine the best tactic; intervention or reporting to police, but moral courage will not allow us to ignore the issue.

Without some personal risk, there is no courage.

It is possible to make a morally courageous decision that does not impact on someone else. However, acts of courage will often have other people’s interests in mind.

There is a cost to self in the service of others.


Decide with Conviction, Implement with Compassion

For me, this phrase sums up moral courage.

A morally courageous decision is based on core values. These values create a strong belief that a line must or must not be crossed regardless of convention, technical permissibility or personal interest.

This creates the conditions for courage - doing the ‘right thing’. 

The British Army has a clear set of values, defined in the Army Leadership Doctrine;


  • Courage
  • Discipline
  • Integrity
  • Respect for others
  • Loyalty 

Selfless commitment

Decisions and actions emanate from these values - they create a plumb line reference for leadership behaviour.  

Ensuring that personal and organisational values are clear forms a core part of our work with leaders. 

Without clarity in values, a decision to act or not act could be reckless and destructive rather than courageous.

However, clear values are not enough.

Assessing Courage

There is not yet a measure of values to assess whether a decision is morally courageous 

For example, in our breakout group, we discussed the fact that Isis has strong conviction in their actions. They may consider themselves courageous, yet we cannot credit their actions as morally courageous.

Compassion in implementation is a critical complement to the courage that provides for a morally courageous decision.

Merriam-Webster defines compassion as ‘sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.’

Hard decisions implemented with compassion will take us significantly in the direction of moral courage. 

Stephen Coles provided us with an example. He said, ‘sometimes we need to evict people, something that is very difficult for us to do. However, we always try to do this with compassion doing everything, as best as we can, with love.’


Developing Morally Courageous Leaders

Our ethos at Leaders is to help our clients to make high-conviction decisions based on personal values.

Our growth strategy focuses on harnessing good information from varied perspectives and combining it with critical thinking and serving others.

The CAL Conference has helped me to understand that we are helping our clients to become morally courageous leaders.

If you would like to explore how, please do not hesitate to contact me.

About The Author | Phil Eyre

Phil is Leaders’ founder. He has an enthusiastic and inspiring style, drawing on his experience in business, academia and social sectors to help any leadership team to achieve phenomenal performance. Phil has sophisticated expertise in psychometrics and in the application of human data for individual, team and organisational success. He has trained with, and been mentored by, global leaders in this field, notably Dr Chuck Coker in the US. Phil began his career in the UK offshore finance industry in 1994, working for a wealth management company in Guernsey, Collins Stewart (CI) Limited, now Canaccord Genuity Wealth International. Phil was head of the company's Guernsey division, with a staff of 120 and assets under management of £4.5billion before resigning from executive responsibilities in 2008. Phil has served on the boards of three charities, including BMS World Mission, a UK charity with over 80 employees and a global reach. Phil also ran the Guernsey hub of a national theology college, received accreditation as a pastor in the Baptist Union of Great Britain and served as a non-executive director for Canaccord Genuity Wealth International. Phil is a member of the NED Forum and the Institute of Directors.

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