Business ethics is well understood. Moral courage in the workplace, less so. Here's how to tell the difference—and flex your moral courage muscles.

If our society were to collect all of the expert opinions on 21st-century leadership and place them into a manual, moral courage would most certainly come up.

Moral courage is one of those phrases that has gained momentum in the last few years, and for good reasons. Leaders today understand how crucial it is for them to act authentically, in an upstanding way that demonstrates role-model behavior.

I’ve written about moral courage before, and it always sparks a great deal of discussion. While practicing strong ethics in business has been reinforced in colleges, universities, and workplaces for decades, moral courage takes business ethics to a new level. Practicing good ethics means a leader follows the letter of the law and uses common sense, while moral courage stems from an individual’s moral code.

My definition of moral courage is this: being authentic in the face of disapproval, unafraid to speak the truth, and willing to uphold a moral responsibility to participate in challenging conversations. By this definition, moral courage is the outward manifestation of an individual’s values—not only as a leader, but also as a human being.

In theory, a person who has weak values could probably get by being ethical. A person who has weak values, in turn, wouldn’t pass the moral courage test.

Ethics also tends to be a more passive approach. For example, when faced with a dilemma, you choose either the ethical side or the non-ethical side. Moral courage tends to be more proactive.

So, how is a well-intentioned leader supposed to adopt moral courage if it can’t be taught and is based on inherent values? I believe there are three main steps to building your moral courage muscle:

1. Know your values like the back of your hand.

You can’t have moral courage without values. This is a given. However, it’s also very difficult to have moral courage if you tuck those values away or don’t acknowledge them regularly. One of the best ways to demonstrate moral courage is by inserting yourself into difficult issues or conversations. If you don’t have strong convictions around your values, it’s possible to be perceived as ingenuine, weak, or opportunistic.

A good measure of your values are beliefs you express to others often. For instance: “I believe in freedom of expression; therefore, I don’t place any restrictions on how our employees talk about the company on social media.” A CEO who often expressed the value of freedom, like this example, would be well positioned to talk about a violation of someone’s freedom in the local community.

2. Practice being the hero in the story you want to tell.

Think of some of the great fables, short stories, or novels you’ve read. Now, envision you are the hero of a journey and put yourself in the story. There is great power in visualizing the impact you want to have through moral courage, whether that be reducing homelessness, improving environmental conditions in your community, or being a vocal supporter of an underdog political candidate. When you put yourself in the story, you can start to see the things you want to accomplish from a new, empowering perspective.

3. Be vulnerable in tough conversations.

One mark of moral courage is having the strength to not only participate in difficult conversations, but also find a way to be vulnerable. Moral courage is especially demonstrated when you don’t know how that difficult conversation will go. You may have an unpopular opinion. You may not win the argument. You may not spark the change you’re hoping to accomplish. But, by participating and being vulnerable enough to do so, you are well on your way to practicing moral courage.

The last word

In the end, what you need to know about moral courage is that it must be built with intention and by practicing your values. It’s also less about tackling every single issue and more about waiting for the right conversation or issue to demonstrate your moral courage.

Also know this: While your opinion, stance, or stand won’t always be popular or easy, to you, it will always feel right.

Jon Mertz

Jon Mertz is the founder of Activate World, a community and podcast focused on business leader activism. Follow Jon on Twitter at @jonmertz.

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