Leadership Lessons: the duty to intervene

  • Published
  • By Lt .Col. Brett Nishikawa
  • 319th Medical Operations Squadron commander
America has always had enemies. For our entire existence as an American people, there have been those who opposed us on political, economic, or ideological grounds. While the identity and character of the enemy has changed over time, every enemy has shared the same goal: to degrade and/or destroy us. As Airmen we are our "nation's sword and shield". The last thing we would want is to help the enemy, and yet it happens all the time: DUIs; sexual assault; acting unsafely, on duty and off; unprofessional conduct; contributing to a toxic work environment; failure to treat fellow Airmen with respect; making illegal or unethical decisions. We're all inundated with training, reminders, warnings, and cautionary tales about all of these. Most of us would never do these things, and it pains us to hear of our fellow Airmen doing them, and yet they continue to occur. More concerning, when misconduct comes to light, most often it's clear that someone else knew about it and did nothing. Why not? Lack of moral courage.

What is moral courage? It's simply doing the right thing, to include stepping in when someone isn't doing the right thing. Sounds easy enough, right? After all, most of the time it's obvious what the right thing is. We have standards and laws to help guide us as well. There's even the very basic test of "would I want that behavior, that action, done to me?"

Unfortunately, simple doesn't always mean easy. Otherwise we would see people intervening for good all the time. Instead, moral courage is often extremely difficult to practice. It often means going against the flow: if you see that nobody else around you is taking action, you're far less likely to take action yourself, even if you know it's the right thing. Sometimes you may even find yourself going against the prevailing flow, and you might find incredible resistance to doing the right thing. You may even feel like you're standing alone. You may be afraid of breaking a relationship, especially if the person acting inappropriately is a friend, or someone you trust, or someone who outranks you. You might be concerned with hurting someone's career. You might be concerned with hurting your own career. At times, intervening could even put you at physical risk.

So what can you do? First, know the standards. Understand what your leadership at all levels expects of you. Get to know the Air Force Core Values: not just reciting them, but really understanding what they mean at their deepest level. Realize that addressing a problem early is better than waiting until it spirals out of control. The junior enlisted member or CGO who isn't corrected just might end up as the chief master sergeant or colonel making the same bad choices. Next, determine in advance that you will intervene if -- when -- you see something amiss. Don't wait until it happens to make that decision. Finally, get help: Reach out to your leadership, your mentors, and your wingmen to guide you. Make use of the myriad of support agencies and offices the Air Force has to offer. You may just find that instead of standing alone, your courage is just what others need to inspire them to do the right thing.

"Knowing what's right doesn't mean much unless you do what's right" - attributed to Theodore Roosevelt. We hear a lot about duty to intervene. It's a necessary part of the message of eliminating the scourge of sexual assault, but the idea isn't limited to that. As Airmen we all have a duty to intervene whenever we see something that isn't right. Courage isn't just for leaders and those on the front lines -- it's a responsibility for each of us.