In the last discussion of my doctorate leadership ethics class, a challenging question was posed: How can we develop organizations and institutions that support good leadership? Equally important, how can we develop organizations and institutions that do not tolerate bad leadership? From my perspective, moral courage is the answer, but how can we teach and encourage moral courage within our place of work and community?

What is Moral Courage?

What is moral courage? One definition is provided by Lopez (as cited in Cramer & Schwartz, 2015): “Moral courage is the behavioral expression of authenticity in the face of discomfort of dissension, disapproval, or rejection” (p. 706).

Some individuals may be good at being authentic in the face of disapproval, but many are not. I know that I have not been the best example in being completely authentic in challenging conversations. We do not want to hurt the feelings of others. More to the point, we do not want our own feelings hurt or have our beliefs questioned. However, if we let things slide, good leadership slides with it.

Moral courage weakens without when we skip our authenticity in times of discomfort.

Moral Courage: The Struggle of Business and Society

Moral courage is something that business and society have struggled with for many years. Combining leadership and ethics may need a more philosophical turn. Kant used a phrase of “ought implies can.” What this mean is if we are able to act for the greater good, then we have the moral obligation to do so. Free will says we have the ability, so why don’t we see more evidence of moral courage in business and society today?

A moral evaluation of leadership can be summarized by a leader’s intentions, the means in which someone leads, and the results of what a leader does (Ciulla, 2005). Intentions, means, and results serve as a method to measure the moral courage and ethics of a leader. These big three also moral courageserve as moral and ethical reflection points:

  • What are our true intentions?
  • Are we pursuing this situation or objective in a character-based way?
  • What will be the results, and how will they create good conditions?

Some may use their past as an excuse for not standing up or for leading in an immoral way. When reviewing our own early or formative years (or someone else’s), certain behaviors can be linked to our upbringing, but these experiences should not justify or condone bad ethics (Price, 2008). Closed mindsets and excuses erode moral courage further.

Price (2008) suggests that rule-breaking is the ethical connection in both leader-centric and group-centric situations. What I take from this is that good leaders know their past and then change in ways that deliver a better ethical result. Additionally, good leaders need to understand group dynamics and then change the group when actions have the potential to go off the ethical track. Good rule-breaking can bolster moral courage and create better leadership (and prevent bad), but rule-breaking needs to be evaluated in a clear situational context, intentions, means, and results.

How Do We Develop Moral Courage?

The next question is “How do we develop moral courage in both leaders and followers?” After all, moral courage is needed in both.

Honest, Respectful, Resolution-Oriented Conversations

Ray Dalio, founder and CEO of Bridgewater Associates, may provide a direction. In a podcast interview, Mr. Dalio talks about the importance of honesty and highlights how he has built this into their organizational culture. What he encourages is communicating honest thoughts, working through the disagreements to make the best decision, and determining a way to work through any remaining disagreements (Dalio, 2018). Having open, honest, and resolution-oriented conversations with no retribution is a foundation for moral courage and supporting good leadership.

Moral Examples

Cramer and Schwartz (2015) outline ways to better teach ethics, including highlighting leaders who serve as solid examples. In my experience, reading biographies of business and political leaders enable us to learn what built, sustained, challenged, and enabled good character. We also learn about failings and how to not repeat those mistakes.

Another place to explore moral examples is in novels and literature. Good stories bring us in and experience how characters interact, lead, solve, and become better individuals. Whether in fiction or nonfiction, we need good moral examples to strengthen and keep our own character and ethical bearings.

Fictional Short Stories

Beyond moral examples, fictional stories serve as a way to explore situations and how human beings deals with them. Cramer and Schwartz (2015) point out how short stories provide a start and a climax, so the stories are concise and emotional, getting to the crux of a situation quickly. Story-based interactions of life encourage reflection and understanding. We may relate to the stories of others in real life and, in the process, encourage our own deeper thoughts and better actions in our self-leadership development.

Whatever our means, moral courage needs to be fostered to produce better results.

Moral Courage: Our Imperative

Moral courage empowers good leadership, and it challenges and, potentially, prevents bad leadership.


Building an organizational culture and community that encourages better leadership practices and prevents bad leadership actions requires moral courage. Moral courage begins with training and conversations on how to foster and enliven it. From here, it continues through actions that encourage honesty and how to work through disagreements to gain better decisions.

Moral courage empowers good leadership, and it challenges and, potentially, prevents bad leadership. Moral courage and good leadership pair well together. Now, it is our responsibility to find our inner moral courage and express it diligently and respectfully in our work and community.



Ciulla, J. B. (2005). The state of leadership ethics and the work that lies before us. Business Ethics: A European Review, 14(4), 323-335. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8608.2005.00414.x

Comer, D. R., & Schwartz, M. (2015). Highlighting Moral Courage in the Business Ethics Course. Journal of Business Ethics,146(3), 703-723. doi:10.1007/s10551-015-2919-3

Extra: Ray Dalio Full Interview [Audio blog interview]. (2018, April 8). Retrieved May 1, 2018, from

Price, T. L. (2008). Leadership ethics: An introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Photo by Omar Prestwich on Unsplash
Moral courage is the required leadership ingredient and responsibility to empower good leaders and prevent bad leaders. Emboldening moral courage is the challenge.