JJ Lavelle, USMC (ret), shares one test of Moral Courage.
From day one, the instinct to run to the sound of the guns is imbued in each Marine. It becomes a natural reactive tendency, almost compulsive. Therefore, many will argue that moral courage can be more difficult to muster than physical courage. I count myself in those numbers.
I pen this anecdote as a reminder to transitioning Marines not to lose sight of where you came from. There will certainly be exceptions such as law enforcement, but in most cases, physical courage will not be part of the job description in the private sector. However, situations that call for you to stand firm to your convictions may actually be more prevalent.
For the previous ten plus years, I had been working for the federal government. I had recently responded to an opening with another federal agency, and while the opportunity was not a grade/pay promotion (I was already a GS15), it was a position of greater responsibility and scope. So after a couple of rounds of telephonic interviews, I found myself headed to a face-to-face setting with a group of senior staff from the agency.
After getting thru security, I was greeted by one of the staff (I’ll call him Jim) with whom I had some earlier lengthy conversations to include the telephonic interviews. He escorted me to an empty conference room and stated that everyone would be in momentarily and in the meantime I should make myself comfortable. The conference table accommodated about 10 people, 4 chairs on each side and one at each end. I took a seat at the table on the far side from the entrance door so I would be facing anyone who entered. People started filing in, and I stood up to do the proper greetings. Everyone took seats on the opposite side of the table, and Jim stated that the head of the department would be in shortly. After about 30 seconds he entered the room, introductions were made, I shook his hand, and took my seat. He then looked at me for a few seconds and asked me to move… to take a different seat! He explained that his senior staff typically had designated seating positions around the table and there was a seat at the end of the table allocated for visitors… typically people doing briefings.
A million things immediately went thru my head. Did I hear him right? Was this some kind of a test? Was he serious? Was there some protocol that I should have been adhering to that I wasn’t informed of? While in reality it was only 2-3 seconds of actual time, it felt like an eternity was going by. In those few seconds the final thought that I landed on is that it didn’t matter. I concluded that this is a guy who I would not want to work for or with. My ears were working perfectly, so I knew I heard him correctly. If it was a test, then it was a bullshit one. If it wasn’t a test, then this person was a supreme micro-manager.
I stood up, looked him in the eye, offered my hand, and stated that it was “interesting” meeting him. I then turned to the rest of the staff and I swear I saw embarrassment on each face. I looked at Jim and conveyed my thanks, purposely using the phrase “it was great meeting you” in an attempt to convey the differentiation. I did my best right face and walked out of the room. Jim was close on my heels and once in the hallway he was overly apologetic, offering the explanation that the boss was “idiosyncratic”. I told him it simply wasn’t the right fit for me and he had my sympathy working for such an knucklehead.
I’d like to think that I would have done the same thing if the circumstances were different and I was unemployed and really needed a job. I’ll admit that the risk wasn’t the same. At worst, my risk was taking an action that might come back to haunt me later (I didn’t know if this guy was politically connected). It turned out, after doing some research and talking with people, that this guy had a reputation for being technically competent, but was a world-class micro-managing prick.
So my message to those transitioning jarheads is simple.
Don’t abandon your moral instincts. Sometimes your gut will give you courage.
JJ Lavelle retired from the officer ranks of the Corps in '99 after twenty years of service. He spent several years in senior management roles with various health insurance plans. JJ returned to federal service in 2008 with HHS and retired in June of 2019 as the Director of Enrollment for Obamacare (Affordable Care Act). Printed with his permission.