Over the past 30 years, American culture has defined courage down. We have attributed courage to all manner of actions that may indeed be admirable but hardly compare to the conscious self-sacrifice on behalf of something greater than one's own self-interest. Today, in our excessively psychoanalyzed society, sharing one's secret fears with others takes courage. So does escaping a failing marriage. These are absurd examples of our profligate misidentification of the virtue of courage. There are many other closer calls. Is the athlete's prowess and guts on the playing field an example of courage? Is suffering illness or injury without complaint courageous? Not always. They may be everyday behavior typical of courageous people. They may be evidence of virtuousness. But of themselves, these acts, admirable though they are, are not sufficient proof of courage.
Courage is like a muscle. The more we exercise it, the stronger it gets. I sometimes worry that our collective courage is growing weaker from disuse. We don't demand it from our leaders, and our leaders don't demand it from us. The courage deficit is both our problem and our fault. As a result, too many leaders in the public and private sectors lack the courage necessary to honor their obligations to others and to uphold the essential values of leadership. Often, they display a startling lack of accountability for their mistakes and a desire to put their own self-interest above the common good.
That means trouble for us all, because courage is the enforcing virtue, the one that makes possible all the other virtues common to exceptional leaders: honesty, integrity, confidence, compassion, and humility. In short, leaders who lack courage aren't leaders.
Lack of courage is not the exclusive failing of political leaders, but our failings as well as our virtues set a national example. We may have learned important lessons from the intelligence failures that preceded the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But I'm not sure we set a reassuring example to the rest of the country by declining to punish anyone involved in those failures. Not one person was fired or was moved by his or her conscience to resign. Similarly, the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib has occasioned much soul-searching but little in the way of personal accountability. The enlisted people responsible for the abuses are facing courts-martial, as they should. But others higher in the chain of command have yet to face serious disciplinary action or offer their resignations. No one has had the courage to stand up and say, "It's my fault, I'm going to resign."
When no one takes responsibility for failure, or when responsibility is so broadly shared that individual accountability is ignored, then failure in public office becomes acceptable. It's hard to see how that serves the country.
Thursday, January 17, 2008
In Search of Courage
I was going through some old magazines, ripping out articles that I felt I should keep and tossing the rest of the magazine and came across this article in Fast Company by John McCain. He really is an outstanding person, even if you don't agree with his opinions. I feel the same about Romney but he's just too calculating. McCain will do what he feels is right even if it costs him. Besides, at the end of the day wouldn't it be great to have somebody who would rather have spent 5 years in a Vietnamese prison instead of betray his country in the Oval Office? Here's an excerpt below if you don't want to click through: