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NEWS | Nov. 14, 2008

Moral courage at all levels

By Lt. Col. Burke Beaumont 316th Comptroller Squadron Commander

All Airmen attend leadership courses, seminars, and commander's calls stressing core values and promoting respect and loyalty. An important lesson often filtered out of these discussions is "moral courage", which is simply defined as "doing the right thing" in difficult situations ... regardless of the consequence to you or your career. 

You may be the only voice of reason in some forum, but the price of your initiative may be diminished esteem among your peers, impaired chances of promotion, maybe even dismissal or discharge. Examples in our professional texts usually include senior leaders falling on their swords to contest some injustice. I believe, however, we are all tested throughout our careers, at all levels ... regardless of rank or position. 

For example, when I was a lieutenant, my office was under pressure to complete a project. Part of the effort required the signature of the directorate chief, a full colonel. Unfortunately, he was unavailable and my supervisor casually told me to photocopy the colonel's signature from another document so we could proceed. This corner-cutting behavior was part of the culture and it was almost certain the colonel in question would sign it anyway. Thus, the temptation manifested itself as more of an administrative irritation than actually seeking approval. I looked around the office and, interestingly enough, most folks had someplace else to be or were staring at the ceiling. Here was the person who would write my OPR telling me to photocopy a signature -- it would have been easy going with the flow. I didn't. I told him that I'd seek other options. After several phone calls, I had the approval and the project moved forward on schedule. 

Another example is a technical sergeant who uncovered multiple improprieties by his supervisor. The sergeant warned him to discontinue his unethical behavior. When he refused, the sergeant filed an official complaint. The supervisor lied to the investigators and the sergeant was reprimanded. Worse, he wasn't permitted to re-enlist. The sergeant did some research and discovered an opportunity to rejoin the Air Force -- as a staff sergeant in a different career field. His desire to contribute still strong, he re-entered the Air Force with one less stripe and continued serving honorably. His new leadership inquired about the rank discrepancy in his records. Hearing his story, his leadership launched a new investigation and uncovered the necessary evidence to indict the former supervisor. Our hero was "re-promoted" to technical sergeant with all his back-pay restored. I'm thrilled to report he later sewed on chief master sergeant and still serves proudly today. 

My supervisor above certainly didn't consider me loyal when I jeopardized the time-sensitive project for what he considered an administrative shortcut. The sergeant certainly wasn't considered loyal by his supervisor either. Yet, I'd argue the Air Force is better for these actions. 

As the Air Force transitions, the associated uncertainty brings consolidation, automation and reorganization. We all face situations where it would be easier, and perhaps safer for our own career, to go along with some idea or policy advocated by the boss or group. But officers, NCOs, and civilians should focus on providing honest (and respectful) feedback, even if it means dissent. Put yourself in those positions and shape your behavior now. When the time comes for you to summon that moral courage, and the opportunity may only be a matter of seconds, you'll know what to do -- without hesitation.