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Washington needs a real shot of courage

But the humorous approach quickly turns deadly serious as one employee is quoted as saying: “We can’t come to work, we can’t accomplish the mission [of the department],
that’s really tough. It’s just harder to do great work.”

The nail in the coffin might have come from Chuck Hagel, according to the Washington Post of July 22..

“The audience gasped in surprise and gave a few low whistles as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel delivered the news that furloughs, which have forced a 20 percent pay cut on most of the military’s civilian workforce, probably will continue next year, and it might get worse. ‘Those are the facts of life,’ Hagel told about 300 Defense Department employees, most of them middle-aged civilians, last week at an Air Force reception hall on a military base in Charleston. Future layoffs also are possible for the department’s civilian workforce of more than 800,000 employees, Hagel said, if Congress fails to stem the cuts in the next budget year, which starts Oct. 1.”

At the heart of the furloughs and sequesters is a problem more challenging than reaching whatever mix of revenue increases and spending cuts will be needed to bring America’s massive debt under control. From the halls of government to corporate boardrooms and the corridors of America’s great universities, America seems gripped by fear.

Administration and Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle appear immobilized by their own dread of constituents’ reactions to higher tax rates or austerity measures — or both.

{mosads}Washington, well known for also being the capital of consuming liquid courage needs a shot of real courage if it is going to lead our nation from this abyss.

The costs of our collective lack of courage are incalculable.  In the case of the ongoing debt negotiations, Washington’s reluctance is jeopardizing both our economic wellbeing and our national security.  Failure to act will mean tax hikes for virtually every American, upheaval in programs that help the most vulnerable, a further downgrade in our credit standing and drastic cuts that Leon Panetta said will devastate the military.

Instead of dealing with hard issues we try to side-step them and instead of owning up to mistakes, we cover them up. Rather than face our fears, we skulk back into the shadows and hope that the crisis – whatever it is – will somehow blow over.  Worse, we resort to lies and deception to cover up the truth.

As a young prisoner of war in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison camp, I got to see daily acts of bravery by some of the most courageous men I have ever known.

I watched seemingly ordinary men face brutal torture rather than recant their loyalty and take part in North Vietnamese anti-war propaganda efforts. I saw senior leaders like Robbie Risner, Jim Stockdale, Jerry Denton and Larry Guarino face years of solitary confinement because they understood the importance of serving honorably.

The valor continues. Even as I write this, brave American men and women in uniform all over the world face fears and dangers the rest of us can only imagine.

Somehow, we tend to expect courage from our military, from first responders, from those we regard as “heroes.”  Experience has taught us, perhaps, to expect and accept cowardice in our politicians and, even more regrettably, in ourselves.

Ellis is an Atlanta-based speaker, leadership expert and the author of the award-winning book, “Leading With Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton”, in which he
shares his experiences as a Vietnam POW for over five years.  He is president of Leadership Freedom, a leadership and team development consulting and coaching company.
For more information, please visit

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