Moral courage and feedback

  • Published
  • By Col. Tim Monroe, Lt Col Kaly
  • 25th Attack Group

"Few people are willing to brave the disapproval of their peers, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change." Robert F. Kennedy


One of the privileges of command, being a supervisor, and arguably, being a trusted family member and friend, is shaping and influencing others' lives. We increase our humanity through relationships, and it requires an uncommon commitment to value all people and seek to help them achieve their very best.

As Senator Kennedy aptly noted, the willingness to speak the truth in the face of resistance and exemplifying moral courage is a tough business. To help guide us in difficult moments, our Air Force has made core values our foundation. Integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do are not just catchphrases but beliefs that guide our actions. From these come our ability to be morally courageous, or act despite the potential for adverse consequences, and give feedback, or constructively critique and guide others, even when it is most difficult.

With this in mind, we want to share a few ideas for commanders, supervisors, peers, and friends to consider when engaging the people they care about most.

First, growth begins with understanding. We all need to be aware of the exceedingly high standards to which we are held. Standards exist in our respective professions and govern our conduct as military professionals and citizens, and are a reason the United States military is regarded as one of the most esteemed professions. Our combined commitment to excellence necessitates we be held accountable to our calling, profession, and one another.

We also have standards in our private lives. We each come from a community of friends, neighbors, and loved ones, to whom we are accountable. Aside from coworkers, these are the people we see and interact with most frequently by mutual interest. Thus, just as we do in the workplace, we owe it to them to act on a shared understanding of acceptable behaviors, standards, and norms.

Next, as professional service members, we are expected to get better. Looking someone in the eye and engaging in conversation, and giving honest feedback should be the norm. It is understandably hard to tell someone they failed or did not meet standards. But, on the other side of honest assessment is the opportunity for growth and self-improvement.

Giving honest feedback requires a fundamental belief we can all improve and do the right things. Real growth begins when we see the intrinsic value in every person around us. Realizing this value means we celebrate our diversity and understand we all have different strengths and weaknesses. Most important, it means we see value in each member of our Air Force, and are willing to make each other better because it strengthens our service, and our nation.

Applied to our private lives, it means when we see something that is wrong, we courageously step in to try and try to make it right. This may mean you intervene when someone's behavior is potentially leading to harmful, poor decisions, or it may mean you step in when you observe someone mistreated. None of these are easy to act on and require one to have the courage to step in despite uncertain outcomes.

Third, feedback requires an action-oriented approach. Said differently, feedback without substance is a hollow conversation. Commanders, supervisors, and real friends are willing to draw attention to what needs to change. Sometimes it is a course correction to achieve a standard. In other cases, it may be calling attention to an actual or perceived negative behavior.

Often it is easier, and takes less time, to "manage" someone's shortcomings and minimize the impact of a person's weaknesses by moving them around or pushing them aside. It takes a significant commitment to sit down with someone and give personalized feedback about their shortcomings. It takes even more time to develop constructive suggestions on building their skills and getting on a sustained path towards their intended purpose. But more than time, it takes moral courage to have these tough conversations with the people we are trusted to care for and lead.

We owe it to the people around us to have the moral courage to look them in the eye and speak truthfully about what they need to do to become better Airmen, leaders, family members, and friends. We need to give them specifics on how they did not meet standards and how they can move forward to be better next time, and it takes moral courage to look someone in the eye and tell them they need to do better. Conversations such as these are much more comfortable when the person has a chance to learn and redeem themselves over time. However, those conversations become much more challenging when there is no more time for them to fix it; when the runway is all used up behind them. 

Fourth, make feedback timely and offer it consistently. Supervisors have likely experienced a member that is receiving hard feedback too late—sometimes years too late. Unfortunately, this is made worse when it is feedback to leaders already entrusted with roles of significant responsibility leading others. Culturally, we need to be disciplined about making deliberate feedback part of what we do from a members' earliest days. This way, they have the information and time horizon to make changes and be. This is where moral courage and feedback intersect. Speaking truth requires moral courage but is expected in the supervisor-subordinate relationship.

Often, we undervalue the importance of our front line supervisors in developing our future Air Force leaders. Front line supervisors have the power and the responsibility to mold and shape Airmen, and they are expected to take extreme ownership for their development. We teach them to take responsibility for their people's actions – the buck stops here is a common moniker - but what about taking responsibility for how they lead? For their behavior? For how they treat others? For how they listen? For how they serve others?

Too often, these leadership traits are seen as finite and fixed. Someone is either a "good leader" or a "bad leader" without the nuanced understanding that leadership skills and abilities are another muscle we should be expected to flex and grow over time. Former Defense Secretary Mattis is quoted as saying, "I'll tell you what leadership is. It's persuasion and conciliation and education and patience. It's long, slow, tough work. That's the only kind of leadership I know." With morally courageous front line supervisors, these can be leadership traits we develop in our people over time.

As important, we owe this type of feedback to everyone, especially our top performers. Just as we respect the diverse talent around us, we should invest equally across the spectrum of talent. When you have a high performing leader who asks for feedback, be prepared to refine, rather than fix. Refinements or small changes and recommendations are suited for top performers who continually assess themselves and their behaviors. These refinements take more thought to assess and necessitate the leader or supervisor to work with the individual to discover their needs and dedicate special time to understanding their desired outcomes.

In the end, we hope that as we take-on a new year, collectively, we will look at our relationships differently. Our military service and community needs strong leaders, and the way we get there is by preparing and refining those we interact with each day. This preparation comes in the form of moral courage to have hard conversations and to give honest feedback when it is needed. This expectation takes time, but our people and communities are worth it. And, our people deserve this honest, constructive feedback to reach their true potential. Now is the time to start these conversations.