Last week, the firing of navy captain Brett Crozier made headlines in every news outlet.

Crozier, the captain of the naval aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt was relieved of his command by the Navy’s senior leadership.  The highly contagious COVID-19 virus was spreading quickly on his ship, and he was concerned about the health and safety of his crew members.  They were unable to quarantine the infected sailors in the ship’s tight quarters.  He wrote an email to senior military officials pleading for the ship to be evacuated.  The email was also obtained by the press, which put a national spotlight on the Navy’s leadership.  Crozier seemed to believe that taking a sharp stand beyond chain of command protocols and organizational politics was the appropriate moral course of action under the circumstances.

“We are not at war”, he explained in his email. “Sailors do not need to die.”

First I want to emphasize that I don’t discuss politics in these posts.  I also am not here to give an opinion piece of the “right” or “wrong” answer in this situation.

What I do want to do, though, is use this dilemma as a cause for pause, and have you think about the moral reasoning you use in your own decision-making as a leader.

I talk to leaders daily about the dilemmas they face navigating their organizational protocols and politics.  They recount situations where they disagree with the decisions their bosses and/or the bosses above those bosses are making, and must come to terms with them and support them anyway. Not only must they support the decisions, but actually endorse, explain, and carry them out.

These situations challenge us to expand our own singular perspectives and view multiple perspectives. They require us to stand apart from, make sense of, and understand the larger systems we operate in.   They require us to seek the bigger context and realize that our own individual vantage points are only part of a much larger picture.  This standing back challenges us not only to learn to advocate and influence more broadly, but also to suspend black and white thinking and embrace the gray that exists in any given situation.

It teaches us to seek to understand and to see that there is not only one way to approach any given situation.  It also helps us learn adhere to and respect the norms we have set up to guide our collective, complex organizational decision-making.

That said—despite our need to develop the ability to move away from our own point of views and see the larger systems we operate in, there is also the need to identify our own “line in the sand, defining moments”.

Where does understanding the larger system and adapting to convention end, and taking a “fall on my sword” bigger ethical stance guided by universal principles and conscience take over?

Where do political party doctrines, organizational boundaries, institutional norms, and conventional rules and procedures blur and become inadequate for the leadership dilemma at hand?

Let’s take slavery as an example.  Slavery was an accepted practice in the United States until the 13th Amendment of the Constitution abolished it in 1865. The Civil War was essentially a line drawn in the sand, and many people literally “fell on their swords” in an attempt to transcend conventional law at the time.

These moral dilemmas, both past and present, prompt us to think about our own ethical leadership.

That’s why I bring up Crozier. Not to argue whether his moral reasoning was right or wrong.  I have no intention of judging that in this post.  What I can do is observe the situation from afar and hypothesize that he may have made a determination in the moment.  That determination may have been that his conscience as a leader in that situation transcended convention. That deciding to do what he considered was “just” in this case was based on universal principles common to all of humanity—not on prescribed protocol.

This dilemma can serve as a prompt to self-reflect a moment about your own moral and ethical reasoning as a leader—especially during this difficult, uncertain, and conflicted time we all find ourselves in.


–What universal principles of what is just transcend learned protocol and convention for you?

And most important—

What are you willing to fall on your sword for as a leader?