Speaking Truth To Power

Moral courage is the ability to stand up for what you feel is right, for what you believe in - in the face of adversity or strong opposition. 

It takes moral courage to stand up for what you believe in against strong opposition.

It’s likely that in doing so you anger those around you. Going up against cultural norms or the status quo may well leave you isolated or even threaten your well-being. Often we take the easy course and retreat from courageous decisions or actions.

But courage is a necessary and powerful tool for change. Without it, we cannot follow our passion for what we believe to be right.

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy- MLK Jr.

Stories, both fictional and real, help us to sample the struggle that we may face one day to act with moral courage.  The film Hidden Figures is an adaptation of the true story of a trio of female African-American mathematicians who served in NASA during the early years of the U.S. space programme.  They played a critical part in sending astronaut John Glenn into space in 1962, the first American to orbit the Earth.

In a time of segregation and of rigidly delineated gender roles, the main character Katherine has to prove herself worthy of being in the space task group.  Despite her mathmatical genius, she is not permitted to contribute fully to the work.  She must endure constant racism and sexism from her colleagues.  Nothing is made easy – multiple times a day she must run to the other side of the NASA campus to use the only segregated toilet block.

In a pivotal scene, the Head of the Space Programme, played by Kevin Costner, publicly calls her out for being constantly away from her desk, directly questioning her commitment and work ethic.

This is the crisis moment of the story and Katherine must make a hard decision. Will she retreat or persist? The stakes are high. We understand that the consequences of pushing back against authority could be dire, risking everything that she has worked for.  The audience, just like Katherine, feels adrenaline and cortisol flooding their system, triggered by the brain’s threat response.

Katherine chooses courage. Standing there, surrounded by her male colleagues, she tells her boss the reality of her daily existence.  And we are right there with her as an audience, feeling a mirror of her emotions. Experiencing her fear but also her ability to be with it as she speaks truth to power.

In that experience of a powerful story moment, we model and simulate our own response to moral challenge.  This is how story teaches us how and when to act.  And by telling each other stories of personal courage, we convey how much that value matters to us, we build collective moral muscle and increase our ability to do the right thing when the moment comes.  It’s a mutual courage workout.

So if you’d like to reflect on your courage stories, either on your own or as a team, here’s a free prompt guide to help you get started. 

It includes questions like:

When did you have to stand alone for what you believed in?

When did your tenacity to do the right thing cause you to sacrifice something of value?

When did you find yourself in extreme difficulty and have to rely on the courage of others?

Flexing Moral Courage


Hidden Figures (2016)

The never-before-told true story of NASA’s African-American female mathematicians who played a crucial role in America’s space programme.

The Post (2017)

A cover-up spanning four U.S. Presidents pushes the country’s first female newspaper publisher and her editor to join an unprecedented battle between press and government.

Erin Brockovich (2000)

An unemployed single mother becomes a legal assistant and almost single-handedly brings down a California power company accused of polluting a city’s water supply.