Moral courage and intellectual humility

I watched Crimson Tide last weekend. It's a terrific film on all things leadership with a strong theme on the 'moral courage' shown in it by two men who take opposite views and hold on to them. Watch the film to see what happens.

One researcher explains that, 'Moral courage involves acting in the service of one's convictions, in spite of the risk of retaliation or punishment … that moral courage also involves a capacity to face others as moral agents, and thus in a manner that does not objectify them'.

The same week I came across a research paper on 'intellectual humility', defined as 'the opposite of intellectual arrogance or conceit. In common parlance, it resembles open-mindedness. Intellectually humble people can have strong beliefs, but recognize their fallibility and are willing to be proven wrong on matters large and small.'

This set me wondering on the relationship between moral courage and intellectual humility and how they get played out in organizations and with what effect. One writer notes that 'In organizations, some of the hardest decisions have ethical stakes: it is everyday moral courage that sets an organization and its members apart'. I asked a few people what they thought.

Chris Rodgers came back with the following which is well worth sharing and he's agreed I can. So now it's over to him.

As regards your 'challenge', re the relationship between "moral courage" and "intellectual humility", I've only been able to give it some brief attention. So make of this what you will!

Both characteristics can clearly have value in their own right; yet they might be viewed as running counter to each other and not easily able to co-exist.

We could, though, think of them as existing in a paradoxical relationship around the central notion of ideas and beliefs. On the one hand, moral courage implies sticking to one's strongly-held beliefs, in the face of open challenge from others and/or unspoken social pressure to conform to some other, established norm. On the other hand, intellectual humility implies that there is an apparent willingness to take account of the ideas and arguments of others, and to flex one's own beliefs to accommodate their contrasting views.

What comes to mind is a book called "Paradoxical Thinking" by Fletcher and Olwyler. I referred to it in Informal Coalitions. Using their terminology, we might then think about these characteristics in terms of what they would call a "core paradox" around people's response to the beliefs that they hold. They would tend to look for paired characteristics in which one "pole" was perceived as negative and the other as positive. So, in this case, I might be stretching their 'model' a bit, given that they both tend to evoke positive reactions. However, one or other of them might be seen as constraining progress in a particular case.

Anyway, given the core paradox of moral courage and intellectual humility, the next step is to look at the most negative and most positive expressions of each of these. According to their theory, peak performance (or best outcome, perhaps?) is achieved when both 'poles' are expressed in their most positive terms. The worst of both worlds (or "nightmare position", as they call it) exists where people oscillate between behaviours that reflect the most negative expressions of each pole.

The aim of the approach is to stimulate dialogue about how the particular characteristics are manifesting themselves in relation to a particular issue, and to identify ways of moving closer to the "high-performance" position.

By way of illustration (off the top of my head!) the high-performance position might be something like principled (moral courage) pragmatism (intellectual humility), say. Or, a term that I've used elsewhere, flexible (intellectual humility) rigidity (moral courage). The latter might translate, for example, as a willingness to flex the means of achieving a particular end, even if this runs counter to one's own view of what and how things should be done. But, at the same time, being unbending as regards the outcome sought and also, perhaps, the ethics of getting there.

At the 'other end' of "Fletcher's Pendulum", (try the activity here) the nightmare position might be one characterized by behaviour that oscillated between fundamentalism, say, (moral courage) reflected in blind adherence to a rigid belief set; and 'what do I know?' behaviour (intellectual humility), in which one's own knowledge and/or position are cast aside without a whimper, to accommodate the views of others.

My specific examples/labels might not make any sense at all, of course. But, hopefully, you get the idea.


How does your view of moral courage and intellectual humility reflect in your organization design work? Let me, or Chris, know.