A Test of Courage

by Mark Hennes | Feb 19, 2018

Quote of Note
"Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half-truth when the whole can be won."
- Excerpt from The Cadet Prayer – United States Military Academy

This post is dedicated in memory of my cousin, Sergeant Thomas J. Conniff.

My cousin Tommy was an all-American boy. The youngest of three children, he grew up in the 1960’s in a suburb of Los Angeles. An active kid, he spent most hot, southern California, summer days outside, either hiking or playing ball. His father, a World War II veteran, imbued in him from an early age a sense of duty and patriotism. So, it was no surprise to our family that when Tommy’s draft number came up, he chose to fulfill his duty. He volunteered for the Infantry, a branch of the Army that would have him outdoors the most, and off he went to basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia.

On the morning of June 11th, 1971, in the steamy jungle of the Binh Dinh Province of South Vietnam, then-Corporal Conniff’s squad approached an open field. As the Fire Team Leader, Tom was responsible for the front half of the eleven-man squad as it traversed a jungle trail single file, each man about 100 yards from the next. As the leader, Tom could have selected another man to be “point” and lead the team across the field. Due to the inherent danger of crossing an open field with an unseen enemy about, he elected to be “point” himself. After a few minutes of rest and a little water, then-Corporal Conniff briefed his men on the tactical situation, and stepped into the clearing.

Corporal Conniff was killed that morning when he stepped on an exploding mine, and was posthumously promoted to Sergeant. His sacrifice spared the lives of the rest of his squad.

Few of us in education will be faced with such tests of our physical courage. Some will hear the roar of an approaching tornado. Some will hear the gunshots in the hallway. Some will run to stop a fistfight. Most of us, however, won’t ever experience such terrible risks to our personal safety.

Instead, the rest of us are more likely to experience challenges to our moral courage. These are the situations that call for us to make tough choices that might result in financial, professional or personal loss, instead of physical harm. These challenges ask us to stand up for what we know to be the “right” choice, while also knowing that the consequences might be the loss of a job, promotion, or social standing.

Here are some tips to help you and your team make the right choices.

Avoid being overly focused on winning or success --- the ends do not always justify the means. Don’t be the type of leader that talks up and rewards a win-at-all-costs attitude. To do so sets up unrealistic expectations and creates a toxic atmosphere in which cheating, sabotage, and outright lying are seen as acceptable ways to get ahead. It really does matter how you win. So be sure to talk about that you’re your team.

Avoid sending mixed signals; be consistent. Don’t be a “do as I say, not as I do” leader. Don’t offer high-minded oratory in meetings and emails, then make jokes and off-hand remarks extolling ethical failures. Show by your actions and words that you have a moral compass that guides your actions and decisions. After a time, your team should be able to discern your compass and even anticipate your decisions on ethical dilemmas.

Beware the slippery slope of small ethical lapses. It’s easy to rationalize these by thinking that no one cares or everyone does it. After all, it’s just a golf game and everyone cheats on their taxes, right? On the contrary, such lapses start a pattern of ethical compromises that may someday carry into bigger, more difficult decisions. Instead, practice choosing the harder right even in the smallest decisions. Much like callouses harden to provide future protection, so too will your practiced, moral mindset will gird you to make tough decisions in the future. Besides, even if you think no one is looking, someone probably is. If they see you doing what’s right in the little, day-to-day things, then they’ll expect that you’ll do what is right in the big challenges that lay ahead.

Just as your school’s vision and values guide decisions and policy, your moral code of ethics and values should guide your decisions and actions. Now, go do the right thing.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CAIU, its directors, or its staff.