Leadership Matters-Len Bernat[su_dropcap style=”flat”]W[/su_dropcap]HEN WE THINK of courage, we normally associate it with a physical act where someone is capable of acting despite the fact that physical danger that could lead to injury or death is clearly present. This type of courage is important but there is also another type of courage that should be evident in those in a leadership position and that is moral courage. Let me share a story from my days as a Marine.

I arrived on the island of Okinawa as a Sergeant and took over as the head of the keypunch section. As I discussed my team with the outgoing Corporal, I learned that I had a Lance Corporal working for me who was on a “legal hold” because he had witnessed an assault where three Marines had severely beaten another Marine. He was a government witness and had testified against two of the Marines already but could not say for sure who the third Marine was that was part of the assault. The other two Marines refused to identify the third Marine. So, while waiting for the NCIS to finalize their investigation, he was being held on the island to testify if they could clearly establish the identity of the third Marine. When I arrived, he was already a month past his date to return stateside.

Six months after my arrival, this young Marine came to me in tears. His uncle had died. This uncle had raised him after his parents had been killed in an automobile accident. When he spoke with the legal clerk, he was told that as long as he was on legal hold, he would stay on the island. He went on to tell me that his promotion had also been held up because of the legal hold. He just did not understand. He was not the bad guy; he was there to help the government. The two Marines he had testified against had already completed their sentences and were sent home to the States and he was still stuck on the island. “It just isn’t fair, Sergeant Bernat!”

I told him to hold on and went immediately to the Supply Chief, the senior enlisted Marine in our supply department. I explained everything to him and his answer was simple. “This is none of your business. Just go back to work and leave it alone.”

Was he kidding? I was stunned by his lack of concern for one of his Marines. So, I went to my office, put on my cover, and went right to the headquarters to speak with the command Sergeant Major, our senior enlisted Marine in the entire command. Luckily, he was in his office so I politely knocked and requested permission to speak to him concerning a very important matter. He invited me and I proceeded to outline what my Marine had told me. When I was done, he yelled in the top of his voice for the senior legal clerk to get to his office. The Gunnery Sergeant from legal immediately appeared with a surprised look on his face.

“Gunny, bring me the paperwork concerning the legal hold of Lance Corporal Smith (not his real name).”

“Uh…well, Sergeant Major,” the Gunny stammered, “there really is no paperwork on his legal hold. NCIS had told us to hold him until ‘his memory improved and he named the third Marine in the assault’ since they could not obtain enough evidence to charge anyone else.”

The Sergeant Major smiled at me. “Thanks, Sergeant Bernat, for bringing this to my attention. I will take it from here. You are dismissed and close the door on the way out.”

I don’t know why he had me close the door. Everyone heard what he was saying and it was very clear that he was not happy.

As a leader, there will be times when you are faced with the difficult decision to do what is right or to just go along with a broken system. Moral courage means that in every case, you must stand up and do the right thing. Here are the benefits you will reap that make tilting at windmills worth the difficulties you may face.

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  • Your team will see that you are willing to stand firm to ensure that each person is treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. The end result will be that you will have their complete loyalty – and that is priceless.
  • For your team members, you will be a role model of courageous leadership and when they are faced with a situation where they have to choose between doing what is right or not, they will remember your courage and hopefully do what is right.
  • Most importantly, you will be able to look at yourself in the mirror each day and know that your ethical and moral compass is truly aligned in the right direction.[/message][su_spacer]

Will doing what is right make you popular? I would love to tell you that you will receive accolades for fighting on the side of right but my own experiences have taught me that in most cases, you will be considered a trouble maker; a problem that needs to be eliminated. But do it anyways. Let me finished the story I started and you will see what I mean.

Shortly after talking to the Sergeant Major, my lance corporal was called to the Commanding Officer’s office and was promoted to corporal with his original promotion date and all back pay and allowances. Arrangements were made to get him home as quickly as possible so he could be there with his aunt for the funeral. He was to check in with the local recruiter’s office until new orders were issued for his next duty assignment stateside so he would not have to return overseas. I was so happy for my Marine and wished him well as he hurried back to the barracks to get packed up for his return home.

Of course, the Supply Chief called me to his office and he was not too happy with me. “Why did you go over my head after I told you to leave it alone? What do you have to say for yourself?”

I looked at his angry face and could not help but smile. “I did it because it was the right thing to do. And I would do it again, if necessary.”

To be an exceptional leader, you have to have the courage to take a stand and do the right thing – not sometimes, but every time. Be an exceptional leader.


Len Bernat
Len Bernat
LEN is a leader groomed by 20 years of molding and shaping by some of the finest leaders in the United States Marine Corps. Their guidance helped Len realize his full potential as he moved from an enlisted Marine to becoming an Officer of Marines. Len became known for being the leader who could turn any lackluster organization into a strong, functional unit. Upon his retirement, Len worked in several positions before finally starting a second career in governmental procurement. His experience and leadership skills enabled him to be recognized as the 2011 Governmental Procurement Officer of the Year for the Governmental Procurement Association of Georgia and opened doors for him to teach at many of the association’s conferences. Len was also called to the ministry and was ordained at Ashford Memorial Methodist Church in November of 1999. Today, Len is the Pastor of Maxeys Christian Church in Maxeys, Georgia. Len has been married to his wife, Hazel, for 36 years and they have three daughters, three grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. Grab your copy of Len's new Book – Leadership Matters | Advice From A Career USMC Officer. Using his life experiences as examples, Len takes the eleven principles of leadership and the fourteen traits every leader should possess—which he learned during twenty years in the Marine Corps—and teaches the reader how he was molded and shaped by some of the best leaders the Corps had to offer.

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  1. Your character speaks for itself. I love reading your perspective on things and what I enjoy most is knowing you are a leader who lives his values. I don’t understand why the person doing the right thing is made to feel guilty for acting with integrity. I was called into my manager’s office once because a stakeholder in a project asked me a specific question about a specific project and I told the truth. The project manager was spitting nails mad at me for not lying about the status and fudging the details. I didn’t elaborate. I didn’t give my opinion. I stated only the facts in answer to the question. My manager told me some people just can’t handle my degree of honesty. I know. I was baffled too. Always tell the truth. Have you seen how convoluted things look when lies get swept under the rug?

    • Jane – I am so sorry you had to deal with that kind of manager. I have been called horrible names, threatened with violence, and even had a newspaper editor call for the Sheriff to investigate me just for speaking the truth. The one thing that always sets them back is when you stand firm and do not let the intimidation both you (and a smile will really set them into orbit). But as Judge Judy says, if you tell the truth every time, you will never have to remember what you said. Thanks for joining the conversation.

    • Eileen – Thank you for your kind words. I find that doing what is right – every time – just makes it easier to “live with myself.” Besides, if my daughters were facing injustice, I sure would want their leader to stand up for them. The Golden Rule really works.

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