SOME YEARS BACK, the feminist writer Fay Weldon was quoted in Time Magazine as saying: “The old traditional values of constancy, gravitas, restraint, heroism, dignity, and honour are seen as belonging to a past world. Perhaps they do. Perhaps it is no bad thing.” Her words expressed the thrust of the suffocating nihilism that has denatured the moral commitments of western civilisation over the past century. Cynical, indifferent, disdainful, ironic – whatever.
Weldon also unwittingly revealed the prime reason for the demise of leadership in the postmodern West. The intellectually bankrupt repudiation of virtue, exemplified by her ruminations, has robbed leadership of its essence. Without wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control, leadership is impossible, in politics, business, the community, and the home.
According to both author and reviewer, cowardice is no longer understood as “the failure to perform one’s duty either in moments of extreme fear or even in the mundane routine of everyday life.”
A recent Boston Review critique of a book, Cowardice: a Brief History by Chris Walsh, notes how the author explains the “semantic shift” that has overtaken the concept of cowardice. The reviewer explains, “Gone is the thick moral grammar and the shared language of expectation by which communities judged cowardice or courage.” According to both author and reviewer, cowardice is no longer understood as “the failure to perform one’s duty either in moments of extreme fear or even in the mundane routine of everyday life.” They maintain it now means “a rare and monstrous thing”, violence perpetrated against the innocent or “an existential threat to civil society”.
The reviewer applauds the book for demonstrating how the traditional concept of cowardice, with “its vociferous denunciation of moral failure”, was used as a “mechanism of control”. He also tut-tuts “the gendered nature of the ideal of martial vigour”, and its allegedly misogynistic implications. While he agrees with the author’s conclusion that the traditional understanding of cowardice might be useful in encouraging one to meet personal obligations, he predictably blanches at the prospect of restoring “the rhetoric of cowardice”. His fear is that it “has a tendency to goad violence and the assertion of power pure and simple”.
The reviewer is, in some ways, right. He is also very wrong. And his mindset exposes the postmodern abdication of leadership.
He is right in that the understanding of concepts like courage and cowardice, and many others, has become impoverished among vast swathes of people in the western world. The decline of education, in spite of ever-increasing government funding, has seen to that. He is also right to acknowledge that a proper understanding of courage and cowardice would prompt greater personal responsibility in people brought up to believe that self-gratification and unbridled personal choice are the supreme goods. The negative consequences of those cultural cancers need hardly be enumerated.
On the other side of the ledger, the reviewer is woefully wrong when he deplores the implied moral judgments carried by the concepts of courage and cowardice, and also in expressing horror at the “mechanism of control” provided by these traditional ethical standards. Are we wrong to honour the courage of a Martin Luther King or an Aung San Suu Kyi or the firemen who ran into the inferno of 9/11? Are we wrong to condemn the cowardice of the captain of the Costa Concordia or Anders Breivik or the murderers of innocent children?
And do we really want to do away with the “mechanism of control” when psychology has long recognised that lack of courage, the egocentric desire for complete security that refuses to risk injury or loss, or engage in any form of self-sacrifice for the good of others or some worthy cause, lies at the root of most mental illness. Trying to evade danger at all costs neuters the spirit of adventure that animates a fully human life, and perverts social solidarity.
The damaging personal consequences of cowardice are loss of self-confidence, self-esteem, and peer approval, with all the attendant relationship difficulties, which simply nourish the overanxious timidity that gave rise to them in the first place. The cost of the repudiation of virtue is seen in the epidemic of mental illness, the community-crippling incidence of relationship dysfunction, particularly between the sexes, and the slew of social pathologies that disfigure our communities.
The reviewer’s allegations of misogyny are similarly ill-conceived – history and literature are full of heroic women – Artemis, Hatshepsut, Judith, Antigone, Cornelia, Boudicca, Zenobia, Theodora, Joan of Arc, Christina of Sweden, Edith Stein, and countless others. Moreover, archived medieval documents bear ample testimony to the active socio-economic and even martial endeavours of women in an age unjustly denigrated by shoddy modern scholarship.
Besides, without the courage and commitment of motherhood, humanity would be in dire straits, as the most cursory perusal of European demographics today makes clear. That women often exemplify courage better than men, is demonstrated by the success of women in the business world, where courage, like all the virtues, is essential for sound leadership.
Cowardice will never start a business. Cowardice will never battle through hard times. Cowardice will never stand against injustice in the workplace, nor anywhere else. Cowardice will never face down relentless competition. Cowardice will never seek new ways to up the ante to grow the business. In short, cowardice will never provide the leadership business needs. Leadership demands courage.
Courage involves patience, perseverance, a willingness to bear great suffering and make great sacrifices. It presupposes vulnerability, the possibility of injury, whether to body or mind, or loss, be it financial or material, and therefore requires a willingness to take risks. It therefore inevitably entails either resolute endurance or vigorous action.
It is important to note that a courageous man or woman risks personal loss or injury not for the sake of being brave, but in order to promote the good. It doesn’t take courage to be a suicide bomber or a terrorist seeking personal glory or the delights of a sensual other worldly paradise. It doesn’t take courage to defraud others in order to feather one’s own nest.
The courageous man or woman values his or her safety and well-being, but values them less than the good for which he or she is prepared to sacrifice personal well-being. Moreover, courage requires presence of mind and a fully rational assessment of the circumstances, no matter how rapidly a response needs to be carried through. This truth was memorably expressed by Pericles in praise of Athenian virtue: “For this too is our way: to dare most liberally when we have reflected best. With others, only ignorance produces courage, and reflection brings hesitation.”
Unhappily, we witness in our own times cowardice bowing before political correctness, hesitating in the face of cruel atrocities, and refusing to recognise stark realities like government corruption, corporate malfeasance, the decline of the middle class, endemic social dysfunction, irrational cultural conflicts, and the western world’s demographic winter. It is cowardly to refuse to address these issues honestly, and it is cowardly to try and conceal them from the general public, and it is cowardly to pretend that we can carry on as we are without any consequences.
Martin Luther King Jr. gave our predicament powerful expression: “On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ And Vanity comes along and asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But Conscience asks the question ‘Is it right?’
And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.”
In trying to make sense of our current malaise in business, and western society in general, we must stop dismissing virtue and honour as relics of a benighted past, identifying them with plainly dysfunctional models in corrupted cultures, past or present. We know what is good for human beings, and we know what is bad for them. Freedom, justice, respect, knowledge, gainful employment and challenge, caring relationships and community are good for all human beings, just as enslavement, injustice, contempt, ignorance, unemployment, and loneliness are bad for them. To defend the good is honourable; to desert it is cowardly.
Those realities are as unshakable in the workplace as they are in all areas of communal life. And a leader would resolutely promote the good. Leadership is impossible without courage.