Must State servants be courageous?
20 January 2012
The State Services Commissioner’s code of conduct stipulates 18 standards that have universal application across the 160 or so agencies of the State Services. The standards are packaged under obligations to be fair, impartial, responsible and trustworthy. The Cabinet Manual, describing these obligations as the principles of public service, imposes them on all employees in the State sector.
Nowhere in the code is there a specific expectation that people working for government will be courageous. Many agencies have applied additional standards to their staff. A few of them refer to courage.
The behaviour of Captain Schettino in abandoning the Costa Concordia well before many of his passengers raises the question of whether he was required to show courage. Should he have stayed until the last person was evacuated, which may have meant conforming to the romantic tradition of going down with his ship? When the abandon ship order was given, did that end his employment duty to remain with the ship? Was he then, as much as any others on board, entitled to save himself?
Descriptions of leadership usually include a reference to courage. We anticipate that people in leadership positions will be explicitly courageous when needed, inspiring others to follow suit. It is a characteristic of good leaders, but is it a requirement?
The word courage is used only once in the Understanding the code of conduct – Guidance for State servants. That reference is to the professional courage involved in being honest. Is the strength of personality needed to show fortitude when evasiveness seems a reasonable course, or where deception is a less taxing option, the same as being physically courageous?
The State Services Commission competency profile for a chief executive includes courage. The requirement is that “chief executives can be counted on to step up when times are tough. They do not shirk personal responsibility.” But does this mean they can be counted on to be self sacrificing in extreme circumstances? Can moral courage be divorced from its physical aspects? How metaphorical would the expectation be that our leaders should go down with their ships?
Captain Schettino will be in the news for quite some time. His behaviour when his ship was sinking suggests that he is not a brave man. But was he required to be? Do we require our State services leaders to be brave – or only those where exposure to danger is part of their job description?
Could we ever have a need for tee shirts emblazoned “Get on board, damn it!”