“Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence.  —  Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961), A Farewell to Arms


Most military training is the epitome, the living embodiment, of the first line of Hemingway’s quote. It is the underpinning of the regimental system: an undying fidelity to your Regiment, your colleagues and comrades. Add in great leadership, and this fidelity is what allows a body of soldiers to accomplish great things.

Why? Because anyone who is cold, wet, hungry or afraid may well be tempted to give up; because you are only letting yourself down. But, that same cold, wet and frightened person would rather a slow painful death than let down friends, colleagues and comrades.

But when something is going wrong, that fidelity can become a terrible hurdle to scale when you are standing up for your ethical beliefs. When you stand up, there are perceived or actual risks of stress, anxiety, isolation from colleagues, or threats to employment. This moral conflict can make you feel powerless to improper behaviour.


“You can live with pain. You can live with embarrassment. Remorse is an awful companion.” – Senator John McCain

Often organizational cultures and constraints make doing the right thing difficult or impossible. How are you, or your organization, doing at removing the barriers to morally courageous behaviour? Try this simple exercise: Rank your thoughts from 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest) for these questions:

  • I/We encourage the dialogue around ethical behaviour and actions every day.


  • My colleagues have the moral courage to take action when called on.


  • ‘Whistleblowing’ may be seen as the equivalent of being a ‘rat,’ a ‘tattle-tail’ or that you are letting down your friends & colleagues.


  • I/We face issues and problems face on every day.



What would do to improve any one of those scores by 1 point?

How do you encourage moral courage in your actions and the actions of those around you? www.americannursetoday.com developed the mne­monic CODE to help to remember what actions to take when you face a moral dilemma:

C: Courage

The first step is to critically evaluate the situation to determine whether moral courage is needed to address it. Morally courageous people know how to use the effective and objective information to determine whether a situation warrants further exploration.

O: Obligations to honour

When caught in a moral dilemma, you should self-impose a purposeful time-out for reflection to help determine what moral values and ethical principles are at risk or are being compromised. And to consider: What’s the right thing to do? What principles need to be expressed and defended in this situation?

D: Danger management

What do you need to do to manage your fear of being morally courageous? This step requires the use of cognitive approaches for emotional control and risk-aversion management. During this step, explore possible actions and consider adverse consequences associated with those actions. To avoid becoming overwhelmed when deciding how to act, focus on one or two critical values.

E: Expression

The “E” in CODE stands for expression and action through assertiveness and negotiation skills. Knowing one’s obligations and demonstrating specific behaviours can enable you to move past your fear and serve as an effective patient advocate,

Three things you can do to supporting moral courage:

  1. Share the CODE mnemonic with your peers and team,
  2. Host a lunch & learn or use a staff meeting to talk through hypothetical situations,
  3. Demonstrate Moral Courage in each of your actions. Click here to read more about Walking the Walk.

The fact that you are a leader will create complex moral and ethical dilemmas, and it is inevitable that you will have to demonstrate moral courage.

As a leader YOU are accountable for providing the best possible leadership – so you better get used to the fact that it is not always easy or fun.

John Wayne once said: “Courage is being scared to death—and saddling up anyway.”


Do you want to go deeper and learn more?  Contact me Steve@StevenArmstrong.ca, and we can begin the conversation

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