Chapter 9 The Courage to Lead – Best of Boards, 2nd Edition

Chapter 9
The Courage to Lead

Cal is the founder and recently retired CEO of a Fortune 100 company. He is also a patron of many philanthropic organizations. He recently joined the board of a small, local nonprofit focused on the arts and education. He brings both substantial financial means and the operating style that served him well in the corporate world.116 Orders are issued; invectives fly. Fellow board members are demeaned and resign. New members (nominated by Cal, who is also the organization’s largest donor) are sycophants and toadies. Initiatives are railroaded through. Corners are cut. Sam, the board president, and Sally, the CEO, have spoken with Cal about civility, mutual respect, governance, and board processes. These conversations initially brought nominal change but lately have been dismissed with umbrage.

Following her last discussion with Cal, Sally has given up on efforts to confront him. She chalks up his behavior to "differences in style" and maintains that the financial ends justify the interpersonal and strategic means. Sam maintains that the price being paid for the donor’s largesse is too high. He believes that Cal is driving off potential trustees and donors, and he is concerned that all of Cal’s suggestions are unanimously supported and pursued, regardless of whether they are meritorious, legal, or in keeping with the organization’s mission.

Vast pressures face today’s executives, managers, board members, and employees. A core capacity for successful leadership is the willingness to act on principle in the service of the organization, even if it means taking positions that are unpopular. As we have discussed throughout the book, knowledge and skills are required for nonprofit leaders to detect and redress financial impropriety or other areas of organizational risk. A vital third component, though, is the willingness to act, based on knowledge and skills, in order to lead with integrity. This chapter examines the concept of moral courage and the barriers that can impede ethical action and provides tools and exemplars to overcome those barriers.

Moral Courage

Courage is a familiar concept. One common meaning refers to it not as the absence of fear but as action despite fear. The word courage conjures up acts of bravery: a firefighter carrying a child from a burning building, a police officer approaching a stopped car on a dark street, civil rights marchers facing down fire hoses and attack dogs. In these instances, the fear overcome is that of risk to personal safety or, indeed, the risk of death. For those who act with moral courage, the fear may be less profound but no less daunting: the loss of a job, friends, reputation, or advancement.

Moral courage is often defined as action on behalf of principle.1 It is “the capacity to overcome the fear of shame and humiliation in order to admit one’s mistakes, to confess a wrong, to reject evil conformity, to renounce injustice, and also to defy immoral or imprudent orders.”2

People often associate the term moral courage with whistleblowers, those people who have spoken out publicly to reveal a wrong. Whistleblowers portrayed in film include Erin Brockovich’s advocacy for safe drinking water, Jeffrey Wigand and suppressed cigarette risk research, Frank Serpico and police corruption, and Karen Silkwood and nuclear dangers. The drama that made these such compelling movie characters came from not only the risks they endured to get their stories out but also the prices they paid for doing so. With the possible exception of Erin Brockovich, who appeared to thrive after her courageous acts, these stories, full of tribulation and adversity, are unlikely to encourage would-be whistleblowers to step up and act.

The good news is that whistleblowing is only a small subset of the array of acts that constitute moral courage. Consider the following:

  • The shopper who speaks up when a mother viciously strikes her child in the check-out line
  • The office worker who sees a youngster kicking a goose by the pond outside her window and rallies her coworkers to join her in confronting him
  • The nurse who pulls a doctor aside to point out a medication error in the orders he has just written
  • The student who reports a cheating network in his high school’s advanced placement exams
  • The driver who leaves a note after accidently hitting a parked car
  • The teacher who speaks up in the break room when others are making fun of a student’s presumed sexual orientation

These are not grand acts worthy of a movie script, but each is an act of courage. You may even recognize situations like this from your own life, regardless of whether you responded to the dilemma in the same way. These everyday acts of courage have parallels in nonprofit governance as well, like these examples:

  • The lone trustee who questions the basis for a significant increase in CEO compensation
  • The new consumer representative to a board who asks for background information on a motion before participating in a vote
  • The trustee who recuses herself from a vote because it could be perceived as a conflict of interest with her position in a local business
  • The executive who overhears derogatory comments about the agency’s clientele at a board meeting and speaks up, educating trustees about the needs clients face and the agency’s culture of acceptance

If our personal and professional lives offer so many opportunities for moral courage, why is it not more common? Why is it considered exceptional (and exceptionally risky) to speak truth to power? What, in individuals and in their organizations, keeps people from standing up for principle?

Barriers to Ethical Action

If the opportunities for ethical action are plentiful, so are the deterrents. Consider the prevailing norms in our organizations and communities, captured with adages like “Snitches get stitches,” “Go along to get along,” “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission,” “The ends justify the means,” “It ain’t cheating if you don’t get caught,” and “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” Each speaks to a different yet powerful rationale for inaction. Let’s look at seven in more depth.

The first barrier is moral ambiguity. Action on behalf of principle first requires identification of a principle that is being violated. Some people may be unaccustomed to operating under ethical standards, and others may reject principled conduct outright. However, a more common reason for moral ambiguity is relativism, the belief that there are no commonly held principles. Rather, each person must decide what is right for him—or herself. This thinking is reflected in the phrase, “Well I wouldn’t ever tell an offensive joke like that, but who am I to suggest he shouldn’t?” Years of work by the Institute on Global Ethics gives the lie to this fallacy.3 Across nations, cultures, industries, and socioeconomic strata, the institute has identified core values such as respect, responsibility, and honesty. Organizations and other groups of individuals create norms of conduct and expectations for accountability when members violate those norms. Clear community standards, principled leadership, and shared responsibility create ethical clarity and offer a foundation for morally courageous action.

The second barrier is discomfort. No one likes to be the skunk at the garden party. No one likes to be the one on the committee, in the midst of apparent consensus for a swift decision, who speaks up and says, “Perhaps we haven’t considered all the alternatives.” Few of us would find it easy to say, “I’m uncomfortable with that” after one colleague treats another disrespectfully or a trustee makes a racially offensive joke. Yet these daily acts of courage help us train for the big event, the time when acquiescence is not an option. In the words of the legendary character Dumbledore, “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”4

Related to discomfort is the phenomenon of groupthink. Drawn from the principle of nondissent, it can be thought of as collective discomfort. Anyone who ever spent time on the playground knows that the group exercises a powerful influence on behaviors of the individual. The peer pressure of childhood and adolescence has analogous effects in adulthood when groups overtly or covertly influence individual members. In groupthink, differences of opinion are quelled, driven underground, or papered over. Decision-making processes that emphasize consensus can yield nominal agreement that overlooks meaningful and relevant dissent. Individuals may believe that they alone have qualms or questions about a given direction. In their silence, decisions evolve that appear to be unanimous but are in fact only superficially so.

The third barrier to ethical action is the bystander effect, which yields restraints on individuals similar to those of groupthink. Diffusion theory suggests that the more people are exposed to any event, the less likely it is that any one of them will act on it. Think of it as collective irresponsibility. From the Holocaust, to the Kitty Genovese murder, to the recent crisis in Darfur, there is evidence that the group exerts a powerful psychological influence to restrain individuals from action. This influence mitigates our sense of personal responsibility, dampens our resolve, and provides us security along with the illusion that someone else will act if we choose not to.

The next deterrent to ethical action is the presumption of futility. “I’m not going to speak up if it won’t make a difference.” “It’ll go nowhere.” “Nothing will change.” “It’s a no-win situation.” People compute a risk-benefit formula and often decide that if they can’t have the desired outcome, they won’t expend the effort to chance it. This is an understandable calculus. We often focus on results and outcomes in our work lives. We consider the consequences of our actions in our professional and personal interactions or, in other words, the return on our investment. Still, there are several problems with predicating action on the likelihood of success.

Outcomes are hard to predict. Hopelessness, optimism, powerlessness, skepticism, and naivete can all cloud the crystal ball in predicting the future. And outcomes are not always the result of rational, linear processes. Change can be accidental, immediate, delayed, or incremental; the gratification for action may be deferred or denied. Change is difficult, intransigent problems may not cease on the basis of one voice or one act of courage. If success is a precondition for acting, it will always be a mighty deterrent. The final problem with the futility mindset is that it diminishes the importance of the action itself. If something is the right thing to do, it is right irrespective of the impact. Accounts by people who have acted with moral courage repeatedly indicate that they are glad they did what they did, reasoning it was better to have done what conscience demanded and failed than not to have tried at all.

The fifth impediment to ethical action is our own socialization. One study referred to the phenomenon as being “groomed for submission” in explaining why nurses failed to report medical negligence they had observed. A 2006 Institute of Medicine study on medication errors noted the phenomenon as deference to “the authority gradient:” the greater the disparity of level in the hierarchy, the less likely the subordinate is to speak up when an error is detected.5 But this is not just an artifact of our professional socialization or our societal deference to the powerful. It is also a result of culture, gender, and social class. It is the result of a thousand messages internalized and lived, such as “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” and “respect your authority.”

Interestingly though, some people manage to act on ethics despite their socialization. In a recent study of negligence in health care settings, the Association of Critical Care Nurses discovered that though 48—88 percent of the 1,800 physicians, nurses, and allied health professionals studied had observed incompetence, troubling errors, or dangerous shortcuts, only 10 percent had acted on those observations. Nevertheless, this “skilled minority” had the highest morale and greatest job satisfaction of the subjects studied.

Although their happiness is a good outcome, the report’s title, “Silence Kills,”6 is a reminder that there are far greater reasons for ethical action than personal well-being. Inaction in deference to authority can sometimes be a matter of life and death.

The sixth barrier is that of personal cost. This goes beyond the social or acceptance cost associated with the barrier of discomfort. Personal cost is about the loss of jobs, security, and personal well-being. People of courage often pay a high price for taking ethical action. This seems a particularly cruel and unjust penalty for the risks incurred in the efforts to right a wrong. Paradoxically, many people who act with moral courage ultimately dismiss the price they paid for their actions. “It was the right thing to do.” “I was so focused on keeping that job I had lost sight of the toll having it took on my soul.” “Regardless of what happened, I can still look my kids in the eyes and look at myself in the mirror.”

In contrast, those who use personal risk as a rationale for inaction often inflate the costs of action and diminish the costs of inaction; it’s what the literature refers to as moral cowardice. Out of fear of the consequences, people fail to consider the price they pay for not living their principles and for looking the other way in times of crisis. As John McCain puts it, “Remorse is an awful companion. Whatever the unwelcome consequences of courage, they are unlikely to be worse than the discovery that you are less a man than you pretend to be.”7

Although remorse is a poor companion, it may also be a precursor for action. The disappointment people carry from times of cowardice can strengthen their resolve not ever to feel that way again. It provides an opportunity to reflect, even with regret, on the opportunity lost and the steps that might have been taken. In doing so, individuals of conscience prepare for the next opportunity and appreciate that, whatever we do, at the end of the day, we live with ourselves and our decisions.


In the nonprofit sector, the case of William Aramony and the United Way of America (UWA) aptly illustrates the damage created by failings in moral courage. Aramony was the visionary and charismatic CEO of the national UWA for over two decades, shaping it into one of the largest nonprofits in the country. During his tenure, he instituted a number of innovations in the field of philanthropy and in the organization itself: the creation of employer-based annual donor appeals, corporate partnerships (as with the National Football League to advertise UWA causes), and internal talent identification and cultivation.

Unfortunately, this meteoric growth was also accompanied by other excesses: first class international travel, chauffeur service, lavish gifts to young girlfriends, extravagant vacations. Early opportunities to intercede in the scandal were stymied by familiar barriers to moral courage: discomfort, moral ambiguity, futility, personal cost, diffusion of responsibility, and deference to authority.

Some people failed to act because they did not identify Aramony’s actions as improper, concluding that the expenses were legal and therefore acceptable. Board members from the corporate sector, accustomed to the norms of their organizations, were ill-equipped to evaluate the effect of such practices in the nonprofit sector. Other trustees explicitly assumed that the CEO knew the field of social welfare better than they did, and thus they deferred to Aramony’s judgment. Others refused to pass judgment on what they considered personal conduct. Who had the right to criticize the CEO as long as he was doing his job? The first class trips were not a secret and therefore must have been appropriate; otherwise, wouldn’t someone do something about them?

Staff with long-time ties to UWA may have considered Aramony’s behavior unseemly for a high profile nonprofit CEO but found little traction in making a case against it:

  • Staff members and affiliate leaders who raised questions were marginalized and ridiculed. Others were compromised by their personal loyalty and debt to the CEO.
  • If the organization was exceeding its goals, perhaps the ends justified the means.
  • The CEO was powerful and had powerful allies on the board. Why rock the boat?
  • The board was responsible for the CEO, and if the governing body approved his actions, why should lesser staff question it?

An anonymous tip to the board chairman in 1990, followed by internal complaints and media inquiries, resulted in an outside investigation, narrowly drawn to examine accounting practices. Although the audit revealed no personal enrichment on Aramony’s part, it served as a tipping point for outrage throughout the organization, resulting in the CEO’s resignation in 1992. Later that year, Aramony and other executives were indicted for defrauding UWA of over a million dollars though misuse of leave salary and retirement benefits and improper billing of private expenses. Ultimately he was sentenced to seven years in prison on more than two dozen counts of tax and fraud charges.

More than 30 years later, the UWA scandal offers more than a cautionary tale about moral courage. On the positive side, it gave rise to increased sensitivity and accountability, particularly in executive compensation, administrative costs, and return-on-investments. However, it also damaged the UWA brand and that of related charities, irretrievably undermined donor confidence, and cultivated enduring skepticism about the virtuous intentions of the nonprofit organizations.*, **,ϯ

* Cushman, J. J., Jr., Charity Leader’s Success Was Also His Undoing (New York: New York Times, 1992).

** Glaser, J. S., The United Way Scandal: An Insider’s Account of What Went Wrong and Why (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1993).

ϯ Kellerman, B., Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2004).

Strategies for Ethical Action

If overcoming the barriers to moral courage requires the cultivation of the will, successful ethical action requires cultivation of the way. This section addresses the skills and resources individuals can draw upon to “do the decided.”

Have a Clear Compass

Whether derived from faith, personal moral codes, professional standards, or some other source of principles, clarity of purpose is an essential element of ethical action. Being mindful of one’s individual and institutional values is the foundation for taking a stand on those values. Without this framework, as the saying goes, “if you don’t stand for anything, you’ll fall for anything.” In addition, basing action on principle—something larger than the whims and preferences of the individual—empowers both the actor and the act of courage.

In the case at the outset of the chapter, Sam’s objections to Cal should be rooted in principles such as integrity or fairness, or on organizational values such as respect and good governance, rather than on Sam’s personal offense at Cal’s demeanor or personality differences between the two. That way, Sam is standing up for something bigger and more enduring than himself.

Know Your Objective

Beyond having a foundation for action, a person of courage needs an objective for action: what is it that he or she wants to achieve by an act of courage? Clarity is important because vague goals (“I just want us to get along”) lead nowhere, and different objectives will call for different strategies. If the objective is to encourage more respectful discourse, group conversation and ground rules about the concern would be appropriate. If the objective is to encourage more respectful behavior by an individual, a private, one-to-one conversation by an influential peer might be called for. If the intent is to avoid crippling conflicts of interest on the board, a policy or structural change might be in order, relegating major donors to “ambassador” or other positions rather than trustee roles.

What does Sam want? To promote a thorough airing of issues in group discussions? To diversify the board? To foster organizational transparency? To halt improper practices? To encourage self-awareness in others when troubling things are said or done? Originally, Sam’s objective may have been to increase Cal’s sensitivity and encourage him to change for the sake of the board. The strategies of talking to him and having Sally talk to him have not worked. Sam must either change his strategy to achieve the same objective or change objectives. Perhaps it would be more fruitful to focus on strengthening the board so that it can carry out its fiduciary responsibilities irrespective of Cal’s actions and statements. This objective might entail several strategies:

  • Securing consultation or education for the board
  • Selectively reinforcing input of other members
  • Utilizing a board development subcommittee to seek and prepare strong, objective candidates for trustee positions
  • Conducting exit interviews with trustees who have resigned or retired and using the findings to improve board functioning

Seek Advisers and Allies

Moral courage involves individual acts, but there is no need to go it alone. People of action need others to serve as their sounding boards, sustainers, advisers, and allies. Different people play different roles. Some are inspirational—they encourage the problem solver to be strong, to take risks, and to live his or her principles. Others are strategists—they offer suggestions, help weigh tactics, rehearse conversations, and play out reactions to worst-case scenarios. Some are supporters—they offer comfort and affirmation even in light of adversity. Still others are partners in change—they share the concern, agree on the need for action, make their voices heard, and take part in strategies.

In the arts agency case, Sally and Sam have come to an impasse about Cal. Sally does not want to take further action, apparently in the fear of antagonizing a wealthy donor and powerful leader. Sam feels the situation is untenable in that Cal is using his influence to discourage sound governance. Beyond that, his behavior is at odds with the principles of integrity and the values of the board.

Sam needs both advisors and allies. He should think about past board members who are familiar with the situation and who might offer advice on strategies. He should consider current board members who share his concerns and could serve as partners in change. Sam’s area association for nonprofits might have individuals available for confidential consultation. Sam’s spouse or partner, mentor, therapist, and other confidantes are further resources for support and suggestions.

Hopefully the board has well-established job descriptions and governance policies for board members, periodic peer or self-evaluations, and a board development or governance committee to address relationships among board members and between the board and the CEO.8 How would Cal’s performance on the board be viewed in light of these documents? Is he living up to the expectations of all board members? What does feedback indicate about his role and demeanor? How has the governance committee addressed poorly performing board members in the past? Is there a reason why they are not acting in Cal’s case? Can they be mobilized to speak with Cal or to raise the “board climate” issue at a future meeting? To the extent that these documents set forth agreed-upon expectations and processes for dealing with board matters, Sam can refer to them when determining his strategy and use them to bolster his position about the risks facing the board.

Walk the Walk

In the boardroom, like the classroom and the living room, more is caught than taught. Humans learn by example. In fact, research shows that most people are just about as ethical as the people around them. Leaders have a powerful capacity to create courage by example, to establish an organizational climate that lives the values it espouses. Ethical action is not easy, but it can be practiced; it can be taught. Those who aspire to act with moral courage serve as powerful examples to others and thus must be sure that their actions are congruent with their words, that they live the code of ethics established for the organization, and that they model the behavior they desire in others.

Hopefully, Sam’s actions to date have represented the behavior he desires in Cal and the rest of the board: civil, ethical, fair, and so on. As he decides his next steps, he should continue to uphold those standards by respecting confidentiality in sharing his concerns with others, by taking steps in a proportionate and orderly fashion (rather than starting with the most severe actions at his disposal), and by treating others respectfully and putting the organization’s interests ahead of his own wishes and feelings.

Understand Change Strategies

Not all situations that demand moral courage allow for planning and strategy. Some situations (the bigoted comment, the rushed vote, the abusive parent in a public setting) arise unbidden and demand action in the moment. Others though, including those in the organizational context, allow for, and even demand, thoughtful and well-planned action. Moral courage is the will to act, strategy is the plan for action, and skill is the capacity to carry out the plan.

There are a vast array of theories and mechanisms for organizational and behavioral change. Some involve incremental progress, negotiation, and compromise; others advocate the use of power and radical transformation. All require a careful assessment of the prospects for change: the timing and climate, the points where leverage may be used most effectively, the areas of resistance, and the motivations of various players. Chapter 10 expands on these concepts and supplies tools for change.

In possession of a clear objective, Sam might use a tool such as force field analysis to enumerate the factors that support or advance his cause and those that act as barriers. Restraining forces might be fear, loyalty, or ingratiation on the part of board members; Cal’s financial power; ignorance about legal and ethical imperatives for nonprofit trustees; and an array of other factors. Factors that can drive change include Sam’s position and his relationships with board members, the board’s investment in the organization and their desire to avoid legal or reputational damage to the nonprofit, or the availability of other donors whose means and power might compete with Cal’s if he retracts his support. After this analysis, Sam can decide which tactics will yield the greatest likelihood of success. These may include educating board members about the risks they incur from questionable decisions; recruiting other independent, powerful, and well-to-do individuals for the board; or even offering to resign if the troubling board processes continue.

Practice Considerate Communication

Communication is a fundamental skill for those who wish to act with moral courage. Faced with a bigoted comment, an individual might make a joke of the statement; berate the speaker; follow up individually at a later point; or react nonverbally, conveying astonishment, disgust, or offense. Some reactions will be effective, others incendiary. Some will encourage reflection, others defensiveness. Sometimes it is hard to predict how a communication will be received; it is, after all, up to the receiver to process what is communicated. Still, the sender can endeavor to maximize success by sending messages in a clear and sensitive manner. One suggested model is to follow an S-B-I format, conveying the situation, behavior, and impact. Under this format, for example, Sam might say, “At last month’s meeting (S), when Cal criticized Linda’s idea (B), the whole group stopped discussing options (I).” Another version of this communication style involves “I-statements” in which the communicator personalizes the impact of the action (“When you____, I feel____”). In Sam’s case, I-statements include (to Cal) "When you insist on your personal selections for the board, I fear we will lose balance and diversity" or “At today’s meeting when you said, ‘let’s just get on with it,’ I felt disrespected.”

This style of communicating can seem awkward at first, but, like other skills, it can be cultivated to good effect. It avoids common communication pitfalls such as labeling, blaming, and over-generalizing and homes in on the specific concern in such a way that the receiver can hear it and act on it.


The capacity for moral courage is a leadership imperative. Leaders must make difficult decisions, endure criticism, model ethical behavior, and uphold organizational standards. All of these require courage and adherence to principle. Although a variety of individual, interpersonal, and institutional characteristics can serve as barriers to ethical action, that action flows from a will and a skill that can be cultivated. The willingness to act with moral courage fosters personal accountability, organizational integrity, and community well-being. Yet the will to act is not enough. To maximize their effect, people of good intentions must still possess the skills to intervene strategically and make their voices heard.