In my workshops on Courageous Followership we do an exercise in which participants examine from where they draw courage when they need to speak up about a sensitive subject that risks them losing the support of their senior managers. Some draw on values on which they were raised, others on their professional codes of conduct and still others on examples of courageous acts by others.
We recently read about an example of a courageous principled stand that was taken when there was far more at risk than the loss of the boss’s favor.
President Obama spoke at a recent award ceremony to honor four non-Jews for risking their lives to save Jews from the holocaust. One of the heroes was Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds of Knoxville, Tenn, a prisoner of war. He refused a German order to separate Jewish American POWs and non-Jewish soldiers so that the Jews could be killed. Edmonds ordered the more than 1,000 POWs to stand together, telling the German commander: “We are all Jews here.” Threatened with a gun, Edmonds held firm, and the German backed down. This is an extraordinary example of courageous disobedience.
We cannot be Pollyannish about this. The German commander could have shot Master Sgt. Edmonds and asked who else wanted to protect the Jews? That is why he fully deserves the honor bestowed on him. Fortunately, most of the stands we are called to take in life do not rise to this level of life and death consequence. Nevertheless, the consequences can be real and frightening. All moral choices give us the opportunity to exercise and strengthen our moral muscles. Remembering the difficult choices made by others can give us the heart to make our own.
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