< Growing Leaders
Growing Public Service Leaders
By Ray Blunt
Courage in the Corridors
(Second column in a series for GovLeaders.org)
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.
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
- 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
- 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?
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
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
- 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
- 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
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
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.