I recently facilitated a culture change process kickoff with some of the finest men and women I’ve ever met – uniformed and former Marines who are engaged in a continuous process improvement effort across the Marine Corps. Blanchard has highlighted the US Marine Corps for years as one of the most values-aligned organizations on the planet. The Marine values of “Honor, Courage, and Commitment” are the foundation of every interaction, in and out of war zones, for every Marine. For life.

Yet, like all human organizations, sometimes the focus on productivity dilutes the commitment to values alignment. The incredible pressure of wartime and multiple fronts may be unique to our military, but the challenge of delivering consistent high performance while always modeling desired values is common across organizations worldwide.

In our session at the Marine base in Quantico, VA, one of the program’s leaders shared insights from one of his best bosses in the Corps. This officer helped Joel learn an important nuance of what courage means in the Marines. The officer differentiated two different kinds of courage: physical courage and moral courage. Physical courage is demonstrated when a physical reaction is required – pulling a wounded Marine out of harm’s way or jumping into the driver’s seat of a vehicle to move it out of the line of fire, for example. Moral courage is demonstrated when a Marine sees behavior that misses the Marine standard, and a difficult conversation is required.

Joel explained that physical courage is trained into the “body, mind, and spirit” of Marines so demonstrating it is simple, immediate. Joel’s best boss believed that moral courage is more difficult, and, without it, leaders are ultimately ineffective anywhere they serve.

It does not take moral courage to observe a Marine’s dress uniform askew; it takes moral courage to pull him or her aside and ask that it immediately be fixed. It does not take moral courage to observe a direct report deliver poor service to a customer; it takes moral courage to ask them to sit down, discuss what you observed, and help them commit to different behaviors that will “wow” their customer in the future.

A lack of moral courage means that accountability for expectations – both performance expectations or values expectations – is inconsistent at best and absent at worst. This “optional” culture typically translates into poor quality of products and services, inconsistent customer experiences, and unfair treatment of employees within the organization.

Moral courage does not mean that you deliver messages with anger, frustration, or a demeaning approach. It means that you conduct difficult conversations with care and caring, expecting the best from your follower, facilitating and coaching their clear understanding of both the expectation and the behavior required to meet that expectation.

If you want a high performance, values aligned culture, you must clarify performance and values expectations and then hold all leaders and staff accountable for meeting (or exceeding) those standards. Be bold with praise and encouragement when leaders and staff deliver performance the right way. Moral courage will help you conduct those needed difficult conversations along the path towards your desired culture.

What successful or not-quite-successful difficult conversations have you experienced over your career? Share your insights in the comments section below.

S. Chris Edmonds

S. Chris Edmonds

Chris helps leaders create purposeful, positive, productive work cultures. He's a speaker, author, and executive consultant. He blogs, podcasts, and video casts. He is the author of The Culture Engine and six other books.
How do you like to learn? Read books | Listen to podcasts | Watch videos

Reader Interactions


  1. AvatarCheryGegelman says

    Chris I love how you have connected the dots between physical and moral courage. You’ve created a powerful vision for all of us! How awesome to think of ourselves as marines as we stand for the things we believe in! Thank you for sharing this post with the Leadership Development Blog Carnival!

    • S. Chris EdmondsS. Chris Edmonds says

      Thanks for your kind comments, Chery –

      These great practices aren’t that difficult – they’re just not commonly embraced. We can choose an aligned path!



      S. Chris Edmonds  MacBook Air & iMac