Moral Courage and Misleadership

There’s a recurrent theme here at Economaney that our nation has been hit by a blast wave of economic change, and that we’re in a national struggle to find our bearings. As we do, we find ourselves looking to our political leaders – more than perhaps we’re normally comfortable with — for insight and inspiration.

But almost none has been forthcoming. What we’ve watched, instead, are increasingly vicious rounds of blame-mongering and corrosive political warfare. Bitter arguments rage over who touched off the event sequence that led to the disintegration of our economic security, even as a dark worry grows that none of us knows how to find our way to a safer, saner new place.

What separates our factions has overwhelmed what unites us. We are Lincoln’s house divided, and the construction crews and architects from each side are brawling and throwing tools at each other.

Irshad Manji and Moral Courage

Irshad Manji thinks the blueprint for a bridge between our warring camps can only be drawn by leaders with profound moral courage.  And she’s made it her life’s work to help create them, having founded the Moral Courage Project at New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

She brings Economaney’s Over-the-Horizon Brain Trust insight into how the forces of reform and conciliation can run headlong into walls of tradition and tribalism – expertise that’s terribly relevant to our society’s ability to cope with the change our economic future portends.

The Idea of Moral Courage

Irshad defines moral courage as the confidence and commitment to call out your own tribe on its problems and inconsistencies, and holding yourself and your own people accountable for their behavior and shortcomings.

“Moral courage is a willingness to speak truth to power in your own community,” she says. “You can’t get to a better world until you cop to your own crap.”

She started her own moral courage journey as a Muslim reformer, asking hard questions about her faith and its leadership. She wondered how a belief system that had once given so much learning and light to a world emerging from the Dark Ages could today have so many adherents advocating a disturbing and violent path forward. So she decided to speak out about it.

Why Should You Care?

Irshad’s insights matter because we’re in a broad economic and political crisis here in America, and simply beating the stuffing out of each other while our national ship slips beneath the waterline isn’t exactly a smart strategy.

Figuring how to develop, demonstrate  and identify moral courage-fueled leadership just might give us a way out.

The Case for Moral Courage

At a moment of viscerally obvious national danger, we can’t get the slightest tractional toe-hold toward meaningful solutions. The rhetoric has grown harsher and more personal, but no minds are being changed and no consensus is being built.

“The dramatic shifts in technology have made it easy for us to hear only voices that affirm our prejudices,” Irshad says. “That allows us to simplify what is indisputably a very complicated time to platitudes which harden positions and place all blame on the other side or anybody but ourselves.”

“You get escalating spirals of dishonesty,” she says, where each group blames the other for the difficulties that have befallen them. “And where you need leaders, you too often get mis-leaders.”

Moral courage, Irshad argues, is the piton that must be pounded in before our climb up and out of the hole we’ve dug can begin again. “It enables a kind of leadership that allows us to deal with difficult, uncomfortable truths.”

What would it look like in our political system? Likely, leadership that was more reflective and transparent, less concerned about face-saving, more focused on coming to the table with an honest assessment of  “gotta haves” versus “nice to haves,” holding less sacred cows to allow for a broader range of options, and being less ready to ridicule and attack new ideas from the other side, allowing for more free-flowing brainstorming and vetting of innovation.

Imagine a President or a Speaker of the House making a speech admitting a mistake other than “underestimating how bad the other guys left things.” Imagine a position paper in which Republicans acknowledge the danger of the growing divide between haves and have nots, or in which Democrats admitted that public employee labor unions were in fact distorting the mechanics of governance in materially detrimental ways.

You’d think that a political leader stating the obvious – a hard truth that their own tribe didn’t want to hear – would find themselves with significant credibility and moral authority.  Wouldn’t they? And if so, why don’t we see our leaders doing it?

“Fear,” Irshad says, “plain and simple.  We humans are afraid to not belong, and there is no backlash more painful and searing than what comes from your own tribe,” Irshad says.

Did she see moral courage in the principled stands made by each party’s leadership during the recent debt ceiling death match? “Come on,” she says. “They treated the American people as children who couldn’t handle bad news, and they wouldn’t acknowledge they had a sales job to do with their own constituencies if we wanted real solutions. The hypocrisy was so obvious that there’s no other outcome we could get to except even deeper suspicion from the public.”

What to do about it

Irshad’s Moral Courage Project is working to make the concept more concrete and accessible, and most importantly to actually develop morally courageous leaders for the public sector. “It’s not enough to try to sway current leaders. We have to experiment and actually create them,” she said.

She points to great leaders from history who have displayed moral courage, like Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. “All were often despised by their own people,” she said, “because they held their own people to account. It’s a tremendously difficult thing to do.”

The fact that all three were ultimately assassinated underlines the notion that a prerequisite to moral courage is plain old courage.

She also urges people to begin to live their own lives in a morally courageous way. “It’s the power of a small win,” she says. “If you don’t like what’s happening in the country, start with your own family.”

Connecting the dots to our economic future

  • The painful, powerful Internet-driven economic revolution is bringing frightening and disorienting disruption to multiple sectors of the economy and real pain in households across the country.
  • It’s human nature to look for someone to blame, and that blame is rarely directed towards our own contributions to the problems we face.
  • Moral courage is the willingness to call your own tribe out on its own contributions to the problems we face. Until leaders demonstrate that kind of willingness to accept shared responsibility, it’s tough to have the moral authority to lead people through difficult choices and difficult times.
  • The transparency the Internet brings makes us less tolerant of being misled, figuratively and literally, and requires a greater degree of honesty, forthrightness, and moral courage from our leaders.

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