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How to find and apply institutional courage

Institutional courage is an institution’s commitment to seek the truth and engage in moral action, despite the unpleasantness, risk, and short-term cost. It is a pledge to protect and care for those who depend on the institution and a compass oriented to the common good of individuals, the institution, and the world. It is a force that transforms institutions into more accountable, equitable and healthy places for everyone.

According to Dr Jennifer Freyd, founder of the Center for Institutional Courage, it is the antidote to institutional betrayal. The betrayal of institutions can take the form of overt policies or behaviours and cause significant harm. It can also mean failing to do what is reasonably expected of an institution, such as failing to respond effectively to abuse and violence. See the relevance for sport organisations and the field of safeguarding?

Alex McLin, Director of the Gymnastics Ethics Foundation (GEF), addressed the important topic of institutional courage during a two-day safe sport symposium, held on 1 and 2 November alongside the 2022 World Gymnastics Championships in Liverpool. The conference, titled ‘Our Safe Sport Journey’ and jointly organised by British Gymnastics and the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG), brought together the global gymnastics community to look at how the sport’s governance and practices can be best developed so that it engenders a positive environment for all those involved – learning from the past and each other to build a better future together.

Alex McLin explained:

“The global gymnastics ecosystem is complex, with the gymnasts at the centre. The type of environment - positive or negative - created in gymnastics is the responsibility of each individual and institutional actor’s behaviour and conduct.”

He added:

“Both positive and negative behaviour has the potential to cause a ripple effect across the ecosystem impacting the experiences, culture, operations, reputation, and finances available across the sport. Recognising that each actor (individual and institutional) is part of this intricate model is the first step to accepting and acknowledging collective responsibility.”

The Global Gymnastics Ecosystem (inspired by Centre for Sport and Human Rights Global Sports Ecosystem Diagram)

During his presentation, Alex McLin presented key principles of institutional courage and how to put them into practice, from going beyond mere compliance with civil rights laws, conducting leadership education on abuse, harassment and related trauma, creating trauma-informed reporting policies, transparency and accountability to cherishing whistleblowers and conducting self-studies, to name just a few.

“Many institutions fear the risks when seeking the truth and engaging in moral action, but not doing so bears much more severe consequences in the long term for everyone involved. Institutional courage is crucial to positive cultural evolution within the sport,”

said Alex McLin.

During his presentation, Alex McLin also engaged with the audience, asking the participants to rank four different items according to the level of importance in creating a safe, thriving and impactful global gymnastics movement across all disciplines. Here is the result and how the audience responded:

  1. People-centred and institutionally focused global gymnastics ecosystem mindset

  2. Courageous and open leadership and culture

  3. Appropriate governance systems and organisational structures

  4. Committed and robust strategic and operational planning

“Whilst all these principles are critical, a people-centred and integrated mindset as well as strong leadership are indeed the most important success factors for institutional courage”,

concluded Alex McLin and encouraged the participants to implement high ethical standards in their respective environments, whilst collaborating with each other.

Access the full presentation:

McLin Presentation_Liverpool 2022 (Institutional Courage) - final
Download PDF • 879KB


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