At the beginning of my accounting ethics class, our professor gave us an assignment—read any book of our choice. Once a week, in small groups, we discuss the ethical themes prevalent in our books. My group and I noticed a recurring theme in our discussions—the role of courage in ethics. We do not believe people set out to be unethical people. Unethical actions often result from a lack of courage to do what is right. We know what we should do, but we are not brave enough to make our intentions a reality. For our end of the semester project, my group and I looked to the silver screen to find examples of courage that related to the real-world scenarios we have studied in class. Below are some of the examples we found:
In this clip from Remember the Titans, Coach Boone exemplifies courage. He knows forcing his team to integrate will receive opposition from the players, their parents and the entire community, but he is not afraid to take a stand for what he believes is right. His courage to defy the social norms eventually trickles down to his team. By the end of training camp, his team makes the same decision to be courageous and remain friends at school where integration is wildly unpopular. While Coach Boone’s attitude had a positive impact on his players, in the WorldCom fraud, Bernie Ebbers’ fear of not meeting earnings had a negative impact on the organization. His subordinates adopted his attitude, and their lack of courage to question Ebbers’ intentions also trickled down the corporate ladder.
“You know, sometimes all you need is 20 seconds of insane courage. Just literally 20 seconds of embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.” — We Bought a Zoo
In a video we watched about the WorldCom fraud, the controller, David Myers, admits he did not understand the reasoning behind the entries CFO Scott Sullivan wanted him to make. His first instinct told him not to make the entries, but instead of questioning Sullivan, he made the entries. If he had the “20 seconds of insane courage” mentioned in We Bought a Zoo, maybe he would have done things differently and stopped WorldCom’s fraud.
"People are always asking me, how is it that firefighters run into a burning building when everyone else is running out? Well, Jack, you answered that question by saving another man's life. Your courage is the answer." — Chief Kennedy in Ladder 49
A firefighter shows the utmost bravery when he enters a burning building. This courage to go against the grain can also be seen in the corporate world. For instance, whistle blowers like Cynthia Cooper at WorldCom and Sherron Watkins at Enron are brave enough to "run into a burning building." While others ignore the ongoing corrupt practices, whistle blowers bring the practices to light in order to resolve the situation.
"It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to your enemies, but a great deal more to stand up to your friends." — Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
As Dumbledore says, one of the most difficult things to do is stand up to your friends. We want to be accepted, especially by our peers. The fear of what will happen if we stand up to our friends often holds us back from doing what is right. From studying Enron’s downfall, we learned that the lead Arthur Andersen audit partner, David Duncan, developed close relationships with the executives at Enron. Out of fear of damaging those relationships, he found it difficult to stop the questionable accounting methods they used.
People judge us by our actions, not our intentions. In an ethical dilemma, we may know what we are supposed to do, but due to a lack of courage, we do not always act accordingly. Being courageous is a choice in itself. We can choose to be brave and act on our intentions, or we can choose to cower in fear and ignore our instinct to do what is right. In the end, it all comes down to a question: “Do we have the '20 seconds of courage’ to do what is right?”