Most of us have physical courage, retired Marine Corps Col. Anthony Wood told a recent gathering of CIOs. “But there is another type of courage, one that in my experience is less common: moral courage.
My simple definition is doing or saying what is right or needed, knowing it could be unpopular or even damaging to you.” He also made clear that moral courage includes a dose of human understanding.
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Wood knows something about courage: He led the U.S. evacuation of Saigon in 1975 (remember the pictures of helicopters on rooftops?). His lecture was, for me, one of those “Aha” moments. Everything we talk about today as key to being a good leader–accountability, integrity and conviction, balanced with empathy and humility–was summed up in those two words: moral courage.
As hiring managers, we tend to assume that the personable applicant before us will have all of those characteristics. But there’s a danger that we’ll fail to ask the probing questions that could confirm the candidate has those traits.
“I don’t think people hold soft skills in high enough regard. They get too caught up trying to hire the biggest egghead in the store,” says retired military officer Salvatore Abano, who is also senior vice president and global CIO for insurer Tower Group Companies.
How can a hiring manager assess a candidate’s moral courage? Abano listens for clues that the applicant will fit Tower’s culture, which requires high integrity and a “we, not I” mind-set.
Another approach is to ask the classic interview question: “What’s the most unpopular decision you made and why did you make it?” But Abano goes further, probing to discover a candidate’s thought patterns and motivations.
“I will test their humility by giving my definition of leadership and then gauging their body language and facial expressions,” he says. “If I get a ‘hmm’ answer or discomfort, I know they don’t get it. If I get a smile or an expression of calm, I start to think there’s opportunity for this person.”
Military officers are trained “to be able to explain the rationale of your decisions and how to have the spine to identify and correct things that are wrong,” Abano says. “It’s harder in the current corporate America culture to call out something as wrong if your boss is explosive or if you don’t feel safe.”
But Abano maintains that leaders must create a culture where employees are held accountable, empowered to innovate and feel safe enough to acknowledge mistakes.
Michelle Tillis Lederman, author of The 11 Laws of Likability and a new book for veterans called Heroes Get Hired, says interviewers often neglect to evaluate moral courage, “but the skill should not be undervalued.”
She notes that moral courage takes different forms in the battlefield and in the boardroom. “In the civilian workplace, moral courage means you know when to speak up and stand up for something you feel strongly about. It means taking a risk, and thinking outside the box, when the easy and safe thing is not the right thing for the company or client.”
Lederman adds that moral courage can produce corporate benefits. “It is the courage that leads to the next innovative idea,” she says. “It can be the difference between a solid brand with customer goodwill and a lawsuit.”
Whether candidates have honed these skills in the military or in the corporate ranks, hiring managers need to identify and assess those attributes that are vital to successful leadership at their company.
Abano was emphatic: “You can’t just do the job; it’s always more than that. You have to do what’s right. If you don’t have a person with moral courage balanced with compassion, you’re just going to get someone who is going to punch a card, get along, and go home–and that’s not the makeup of today’s leader.”
Kristen Lamoreaux is president and CEO of Lamoreaux Search, which finds IT professionals for hiring managers.
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