On Civic Virtue, Respect, and Followership

Jose Ferrer as Navy Lt Greenwald, “The Caine Mutiny” (Columbia Pictures, 1954)

Ever work for someone or have to be deferential to someone you didn’t respect or didn’t like? Fortunately for me, all the men and women I reported directly to were people I did respect. Civic virtue demands we understand how to respect the office rather than just the office holder.

Respect the Rank and the Office

Of course, and there’s a variety of ways to deal with a situation where the office holder isn’t necessarily someone we can respect personally, some good and some, well, not so good. No matter what, we always respect the rank, or the office, regardless of whether we respect the man or woman wearing it. In truth, there’s really only one way professionals–make that adults–deal with the idea that we respect the “rank” even when we don’t respect the man wearing it. We use the proper titles and terms of address for others, and for Heaven’s sake, capitalize the name of God whether we believe in Him or not. We say “yes, sir” and “yes, ma’am” when speaking to officials, and each other. We don’t use foul language in public. The respect we show isn’t necessarily to the office holder–its to the office itself. Particularly in our American experience, office holders are transitory–but the ideals that hold our country together are not. When we show respect for the rank and the office, we are endorsing the ideals behind them that bind us together.

Civil Virtue Builds Societies

While a lack of respect for others is certainly not a new phenomenon, it has been very disheartening to me how coarse our language has become, and how little respect we show each other both online and in person. I think it’s time to revisit the idea of civic virtue–those virtues and ideals that put the civil peace ahead of our own desire to express ourselves. In fact, these days we talk a lot about “rights.” While everyone has a right to be rude, it’s destructive to the civil peace and ultimately to the person being rude. Being authentically free is not doing whatever we want, it’s being free of shackles so we choose whats good for us. I once heard a protocol officer remind her staff that the purpose of custom and protocol was to ensure everyone knew what to do and therefore everyone felt more comfortable. Civic virtue–civility–does the same thing. When we know the people we are interacting with will treat us with respect, we are much more likely to return that respect. The stress level lowers, the conversation centers on issues rather than personality. Oh, I know, the “yellow dog press” of the past always printed salacious things, and of course people being people we have always had bouts of incivility. But until recently, that was not the norm and it was not accepted in most company. There is a great deal to be said about good manners.

Right On Mr Greenwald

Which brings us to Jose Ferrer’s “Lt Greenwald” and lessons from film, and from a more civil time. Sometimes film is a great way to examine culture and even think out leadership. If you’ve never seen the 1954 film The Caine Mutiny, based on the Herman Wouk novel, then you really should. It’s one of my favorite films. Not only is The Caine Mutiny spectacularly good film making, it also gives some insight into virtues like loyalty, leadership, & followership. (Spoiler Alert)

What I think is a particularly good lesson in this film is the idea of respect for a position or office, even when we might not “like the cut of his suit” as Mr Greenwald (Jose Ferrer) says. While life is not a US Navy destroyer in a life-threatening gale, there is something to be said about respecting the position and being loyal to an institution even when respect for the person is difficult. In this case, the extreme situation of relieving the captain of the ship in order to save it would likely not been necessary if the officers had shown the most modest respect and loyalty to their boss. That respect for the “office” is how professionals act–not out of self-interest or on a personal agenda. In the Air Force we call that virtue “Service Before Self.” As a civic virtue, it’s called “patriotism” or “loyalty,” even “civic duty.” That’s the real lesson of the film. Had the officers of the Caine put their ship and their mission, and yes, even their captain’s welfare, ahead of their own there would not have been a mutiny. No careers destroyed, no ship and crew in peril in a storm.

Those virtues don’t just work in film, they work in the real world, too.


Mickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 30 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.

Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams, Mickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and writes for his own blog and GeneralLeadership.com.

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