The Importance of Moral Courage in Leadership

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AN OCCASIONAL ADDRESS TO THE UNIVERSITY OF TASMANIA FACULTY OF ARTS GRADUATION ON 14 DECEMBER 2010, BY Chief Executive Officer, Mrs Barbara Etter APM

“The Importance of Moral Courage in Leadership”
Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, distinguished guests, graduates, ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys. Before I commence, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land. It is with great pleasure that I am delivering an occasional address this morning at this very important event – your graduation. The university kindly allowed me to consider a topic of my own choice. Sometimes this is harder than when people actually give you a topic! I thought about what I wanted to speak on for some time. After nearly 30 years in policing, in various jurisdictions of Australia, I have a real passion for integrity and leadership. Over time, and particularly with my more recent involvement in corruption fighting, I have really come to value the concept of moral as opposed to physical courage. Both Aristotle and Plato wrote about courage as a “virtue” (or a human quality necessary for people to live together). As head of the newly-formed Integrity Commission here in Tasmania, I find the virtue of moral courage of great importance as we work to not only prevent misconduct and corruption, but actively seek out this invidious “cancer” and deal with it appropriately and as swiftly as we can. In this respect, and working within the constraints of the legislation, we have taken on a proactive role in relation to a number of matters of significant public interest. Our active oversight of the recent fatal police shooting I believe is an example of this proactive approach. There are other matters, too, which I am unable at this time to speak about which I and others felt compelled to pursue. I might add that there has already been a bit of pushback on us “taking the initiative” on some issues. Moral courage is an essential criterion, in particular, in striving for integrity and in fighting corruption. The concept itself needs to be distinguished from courage. Moral courage is courage demonstrated through holding onto one’s values!

I am firmly of the view that, to be an effective leader in the fight for integrity, it is important that you have a “fire in your belly” about injustices and wrongs. You must not be afraid to stick your head above the parapet to have a good look at what is going on, even if it means that you might cop a few deadly or damaging arrows in the process! Policing has been a bit confrontational for me. Particularly as a woman in a very male dominated profession, it was very noticeable when I stuck my hand up or raised my head above the parapet. I have had cause to speak up and challenge the prevailing view, entrenched attitudes and poor practices during my long policing career and it has often been at some personal cost. For instance, in my previous role as the Assistant Commissioner in charge of corruption prevention and investigation, I had cause on occasions to overturn the findings of the internal affairs unit, or to recommend dismissal of a police officer in difficult circumstances but in the public interest. The courage of your convictions certainly helps you to be resilient under such circumstances. There are great intrinsic rewards from knowing that you have done the right thing. I often remind myself of the saying that “the softest pillow that you can have at night is a clear conscience”. So, for more on the concept of “moral courage” – to me, it is what drives me to achieve my end values of “integrity, justice and humanity”. It is that little inner voice that irritates and agitates, particularly in difficult or uncertain times, that tells you what is the right thing to do! At other times, it is the voice that shouts at you “you can’t let that happen!” Moral courage is more than that prick of conscience that makes you aware of a values clash or something even worse. Moral courage also includes the...
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