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The Moral Courage to Challenge Others

Lawson Magruder

September 2015

Over the last few years we have been reading about one scandal after another where senior leaders in both the civilian and military ranks have demonstrated poor judgment through inappropriate conduct. Each time I read about one of these scandals, I wonder how long this went on and who knew about it and failed to confront the senior leader or report the behavior to higher authority. Each scandal has resulted in a stain on the senior leader's institution, public embarrassment, some form of punishment, and career derailment. In each instance, sadly I suspect, there were superiors, subordinates and peers along the way who turned a blind eye to what was going on and did not have the moral courage to challenge their business associate or friend to stop the inappropriate behavior.

I suspect we each have known someone who has suffered a derailment that could have been stopped if we or someone else had stepped in to challenge the leader. The saddest case I witnessed was a senior military leader- a peer general officer- whose career was terminated due to alcoholism and then he sadly died within months of his retirement. Through the years since his passing, I have heard many state that they knew he was a heavy drinker even at an early age but "he always got the job done to a very high standard". I have always wondered how many should have intervened along the way? A superior? A peer? A CSM? A subordinate? Perhaps it would have fractured their relationship but have inspired him to change his destructive behavior.

The courage to challenge others is a behavior that we ask to be assessed on our Authentic Leader 360 Assessment. Typically respondents focus on the leader's ability to challenge subordinates or direct reports not their courage to challenge a superior or supervisor. Usually the excuse given for not challenging senior leaders is fear of retribution, a severe reaction, denial or rejection. How many of us failed to challenge a superior in the past and then later found out that the leader ended up heading down the path of self-destruction, career derailment, a divorce, serious health issue, and an extremely adverse impact on junior leaders' careers, the team's morale, and mission accomplishment? How many of us look in our rearview mirror with regret that we did not have the courage, the guts to give timely advice to a friend, a business associate, a senior leader when we observed self-destructive behavior? To a friend who was living beyond their means? To a friend who was abusing alcohol or drugs? To a peer who was pressing the envelope with verbal or physical abuse of others? To a superior who was having an inappropriate relationship with the spouse of the subordinate or peer? Perhaps because we didn't intervene in a timely matter, the leader got on the slippery slope of self-destruction and to the point of no return. Regrets we have all had a few.

The questions that we should all be pondering are:

How can we prevent ourselves from the path of self-destruction and how can we approach someone we know is heading in the wrong direction?

Here are a few tips:

  • Place your True Growth model in a prominent place in your office to periodically grade yourself on how you're living your own personal values which are the nucleus of your character.
  • Have a confidant/ombudsman/"watchdog" in your life who can come into your space at any time and provide feedback and advice to you. You must be open to feedback.
  • Frequently look yourself in the mirror and ask the question: "Am I bringing honor to myself, my family and/or my organization with my actions?" If the answer is "no", then you need to change your behavior immediately. Perhaps you will need the help of a professional to address an issue like an addiction.
  • Periodically ask for feedback from your direct reports on your behavior. Challenge them to challenge you when your behavior is inappropriate and not in alignment with your organizational and personal values. Ask for anonymous feedback on specific behaviors. Perhaps a good place to start is with the questions on our 360 assessment. Ask for a "+"/Delta on your behaviors.
Helping Others:
  • Before you approach the leader, ensure you have specifics to share with them. If you have personally observed the inappropriate behavior, you need to provide the time, place and specifics.
  • If you have been provided information from another about a friend or leader in your chain of command, you need to corroborate the information before you confront the leader.
  • If you need assistance in delivering the message to a superior, perhaps a peer of his or her may be of assistance in carrying the message. A tough call to take it outside your chain of command but it may work better.
  • Your feedback needs to be timely and provided in private.
  • If you feel like the behavior is putting the unit's mission and it's personnel at risk, you are obligated to pass the observation on to the next leader in your chain for his/her action.
  • You must realize that the initial reaction of the leader may be anger, emotion or rejection but oftentimes you will have planted the seed for immediate change of their behavior. Hopefully they will thank you someday for "saving them from themselves"!

True Growth Takeaway: You need to have the moral courage to challenge a friend or business associate who is heading for derailment because of inappropriate behavior.

True Growth Journal Questions: Is there a friend or business associate in your life right now that needs to be challenged to change their inappropriate behavior before it results in personal embarrassment or negatively impacting the unit's mission or possible derailment of their career? If so, what steps do you need to take to help your friend?

About the author: Lawson Magruder is a retired Army Lieutenant General, member of the US Army Ranger Hall of Fame, founder and principal owner of LWM III Consulting, and married for over 45 years to his beloved Gloria. They have three children and four beautiful grandchildren.

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