Courage or Duty?

I’ve been thinking about these two words – courage and duty – and how they apply to our lives at home and at work.

In part because this May I’ll introduce the Maine HR Convention audience to Catherine Carr, an HR leader from Doctors Without Borders. She’s taken tours of duty in Africa, Syria, and elsewhere under circumstances beyond most of our day-to-day imagination.

Also, in part from my experiences on a recent trip to Argentina. It was a once in a lifetime journey to Patagonia and the glaciers on the Argentine/Chilean border. A chance to see the ice before it “disappears.” A chance to experience Buenos Aires and its multi-cultural communities.

We visited that city’s Human Rights Memorial Museum. My husband and I were already familiar with the “Disappeared,” the 30,000 young Argentines – artists, writers, teachers, the young men and women next door – taken by the post-Peron military regime. Scooped up in the middle of the night, never to be seen again. We knew about the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who for the past 40 years march every Thursday with placards of their missing sons and daughters. But what I discovered on this trip, through the Museum exhibits, was the courage written on the Mothers’ faces, as they put their lives and their remaining children’s lives at risk by the mere act of marching. I also learned that some 400 of the “Disappeared” were pregnant and that their babies, in turn, were stolen and given to friends of the regime to raise, before these new mothers were murdered themselves. Through the science of DNA, many of these stolen children have now been reunited with their Grandmothers – the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. The photos of the reunion scenes are raw with emotion and courage. Finally, we learned about a smaller group – the “Historias Desobedientes,” who have assisted the government in prosecuting the perpetrators of these crimes during Argentina’s roller-coaster path to justice. Courage writ large, because the “Historias Desobedientes” are the children of the actual perpetrators, turning over evidence of their family’s crimes and now alienated from those same families.

Courage indeed. Obvious indeed.

My husband and I talked about this. A lot. He suggested that it’s too easy to confuse “doing the right thing” with courage. Living up to our responsibilities. Living our work and personal lives with honor. Those are all things we should do inherently, but they are not uniquely courageous. And, I’ve come to agree. When the press brands a politician or a CEO as courageous, more often than not that person is simply doing what duty and responsibility commands. Doing the right thing may pose a measure of risk to these individual’s financial security or base of power, but it is not the existential stuff of courage. Doing the right thing is merely the building block, without which we are less apt to exhibit courage when the moment calls.

Bud Bernstein
Curator for the Maine HR Convention
Strategic HR U.S.