Slow Courage and Doing the Right Thing

Slow Courage and Doing the Right Thing

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Why do some bureaucracies succeed while many others fail? There are endless explanations for this, and we will add one more: slow courage.

We’re not talking about the kind of heroism displayed in 1987 by U.S. sailor Wayne Weaver who escaped a fierce on-board fire only to turn around and go back for his buddies -- three times. On his fourth descent into the hellish flames he did not return.

That’s raw, gritty courage, the kind that brings tears to our eyes.

But there is a different kind of courage, and it’s what keeps the wheels of the world moving, even if its practitioners don’t get written up in their hometown newspapers.

People with slow courage do the right thing in organizations that reward the wrong thing, rising above the systems they inhabit. Rather than single acts of brazen bravery, it’s heroic habits over time.

You see, here is the problem with most bureaucracies, public or private: they say they are out to achieve some Right Thing (“help the kids,” “defend the country,” “delight customers,” whatever) but what they reward is realism.

Realism is about leaders who defer maintenance on critical equipment to make their numbers look great (and let the next guy clean up). Realism is about transferring bad employees, instead of firing them, because firing them is so damned hard. Realism is about cutting everyone’s budget the same percentage – the salami slice – because intelligent, surgical cuts require thought, work, and a thick hide.

But people with slow courage are patient idealists. They say, “The hell with ‘reality’; I joined to do the right thing.” They are the purchasing agent who buys what her company needs, not what her boss’s buddies are selling; the safety inspector who digs deep enough to actually protect people, even if it annoys them; or the Pentagon cost estimator who delivers real costs rather than the “right answers” her superiors are looking for.

These moral choices occur repeatedly over time and there are no medals for making the right choice, again and again. People with slow courage are not always happy people, but every morning they can look at themselves in the mirror and know that they will do the right thing. It is their integrity that drives the organization actually to deliver on its promised results, if only a little.

If the person with slow courage happens to be a leader, then here is what they do: they act as the crap umbrella for their people. They shield their people, saying, “We claim to be here to do the right thing. As long as you work for me, that’s what you really do. I’ll protect you from the idiots; now go and do the right thing.” And then they create a culture where the right thing is rewarded and the dumb thing is not, and they take the flak. They create an island of sanity in a sea of silliness.

Anyway, this brief post is a paean to the many, MANY anonymous people with slow courage. Whether you fulfill orders in a warehouse, deliver mail, or defend the country, we thank you. You don't face one great moment of truth; you face many small moments of truth. Thank you. And you do the right thing. Thank you.


A REQUEST, DEAR READER: It’s likely we’ll say more on slow courage. For one thing, we’d like to herald examples of it. If you can tell us about any such examples you’ve observed (and we can share), we’d be obliged. Write us directly at [email protected].

Published: June 16, 2015


      • I’m glad you liked the article, Karthik! Yes, there is tremendous pressure for quick fixes. Thanks for your example. Given what you say, you might enjoy “Foreign Aid for a Frugal Age” in Miller-McCune magazine (


      • You seem to have blended the executional part of organizational strategy with decision making by top management. Slow courage requires a detailed level of experience in understanding organizational processes, systems and people. One of the immediate examples that I could think of is the strategy adopted by United Nations organization in eradicating poverty. Despite several quick fixes and immediate solutions available, the decision makers are highly patient in responding to different stimuli and effects of this menace at large. It requires not a sudden effort, but a consistent, well thought-out and coordinated effort in tacking this kind of issues.

        An excellent article worth reading and can be expanded a lot!


      • Great article. Many people can not face something wrong and exit. Only few people slowly and silently make it happen. Being persisent is the key. I wish that I get to know some more experiences shared by others. Thanks. Hemant


      • You’ll get your wish. We are collecting some good examples of slow courage and will post them here. Stay tuned.

    • Jon Nakapalau

      I view much of corporate America today as a kind of “techno-feudalism” were different departments are ruled by a “prince” or “princess” who can prevent implementation of the corporate vision because they have almost complete operational control over their “principality.”

      I have watched department’s lose key individuals due to the fact that a dysfunctional person was put in a leadership role even though they did not have the requisite interpersonal skills needed to provide the linkage back to a corporate vision. Often such individuals turn their departments into a platform of self-aggrandizement and feel that their subordinates serve no other purpose but to get them to their next corporate plateau.

      On a micro level this slowly erodes the interoperability of a given department; on a macro level it has a corrosive effect on the whole organization.

      I am sorry to say that some of the best people I have ever worked with slowly found the courage to leave such organizations.


    • Agreed. Sometimes virtue had better be its own reward! Some of the stories we’ve gotten in response to this article have been from people who were clearly fired for doing the right thing. Integrity can be costly. But if it were always easy, courage wouldn’t be required.

      And, yeah, the impact on other employees is awful. They are seeing good behavior punished; but at least they’re also seeing courage.


    • Loren Heckelman

      Nice article… and all well and good if the person with “slow courage” is the leader as you described. What if that person is NOT the leader? Can make for a miserable time. That’s when the “slow courage” is tested… and often there are consequences. Big consequences. Not only is that person with “slow courage” impacted and perhaps penalized by not being promoted or not receiving the usual awards… maybe even demoted or pushed aside to an inconsequential job… but also all the others around who witness that person getting “beat up” by the boss for wanting to do the right thing. It’s unhealthy and often there are no options but to wait out that boss and hope the next one is better.


    • I liked your essay. You have a good style. It’s easy to read, written in plain language. Congratulations!



    • Thanks, Vance! That’s exactly what we’re aiming for (and I seem to recall a certain doctoral adviser who insisted on clarity, brevity, and humanity).

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