The word Fear written with a pencil on white paper.  An eraser from a pencil is starting to erase the word fear.

Courage and Leadership

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” –Winston Churchill

From time to time different things will enter my brain as possible topics to write about. For the past couple of weeks I have been thinking about “courage.” How and why is it important to me? How and why is it an important leadership attribute? How and why is it important period? When this topic ‘appeared’ it did so as a small seed. If I want to accelerate the growth of the ‘seed’ I will do ‘research.’ This time I started my research by asking other people what courage meant to them.

What follows is what I have emerged to this point about courage. I think there will be a Part 2.The fun thing about these topics is once they come to a conscious level all I have to do is be aware of how they show up in my day to day world.

This period of quarantine has presented some challenges (most are inconveniences), multiple tragedies, and a great deal of uncertainty. It has also presented us with opportunity for how we live going forward. What is emerging for you as a result of not being able to ‘rush off’ to some new activity? How have you adjusted to not having your ‘community.’ What does more ‘family time’ look like?

I want to end this intro with a special thank you to my good friend and colleague, Richard Smith. He shared with me some of his thinking and writing for which I am most grateful.

 To a better you…


Courage and Leadership Part 1

 “Courage is the first of human qualities because it’s the quality that guarantees the others.” – Aristotle

Let’s start with some context for our discussion. My sense it that the ‘road less traveled’ for this discussion might take us on a more personal journey.

Courage is the choice and willingness to confront agony, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation. Physical courage is bravery in the face of physical pain, hardship, even death or threat of death, while moral courage is the ability to act rightly in the face of popular opposition, shame, scandal, discouragement, or personal loss. The classical virtue of fortitude (andreia, fortitude) is also translated “courage”, but includes aspects of perseverance and patience. – Wikipedia

My own notion of physical courage began as a small boy. Courage was acted out in my games of ‘war’ played with my friends. In those games we wanted to be brave, to head into the ‘danger’ and do what needed to be done. To be the hero. Being the ‘hero’ was a desire in most of my games (baseball, basketball) when I practiced alone. As I matured, nuances to the notion of courage began to appear. Going off the unknown (camp at 9 years of age) where I didn’t know anyone, elicited a lot of fear. I didn’t feel very brave. I was homesick for most of the week. I did manage to have some fun along the way, which helped ‘dampen’ my fear and turn camp into an ‘okay’ experience.

The ‘fear’…well that was about wondering if I would ‘measure’ up to others’ expectations and eventually, to my own expectations. My sense is that this is part of being socialized as a boy. How does that look for girls? I think ‘measuring up’ is an element of growing up for all of us (perhaps another topic).

I think that the physical aspects of courage are very evident in a boy’s socialization. It is important to understand that courage comes from the French word ‘cuer’ meaning ‘heart.’ It is there that we broaden not only the definition, but how it shows up in us – what is the ‘heart’ we show?

I can’t say exactly when I became aware of moral courage, but I’m sure it would have been as a teenager. My sense was that the ability to act ‘rightly’ in all situations might be more difficult than physical courage. This was brought home most dramatically at 19 as I prepared to enter the military draft. As I educated myself about the Vietnam War there were increasing amounts of information that seemed to challenge why we were there. I don’t know if I would have labeled it as an ‘immoral’ war, but close. This set up a lot of inner tension about the ‘right’ thing to do and the physical courage to serve in the military. Having physical courage and moral courage present in the same situation was quite the dilemma for a 19 year old. (Note: there was a lot of unrest about the Vietnam War. That ‘noise’ made it even harder to get clarity around the decision about the war and the draft.)

As I reflect on my journey with courage, I would say the bigger challenges have come from doing what was right in the face of doing something easier. Doing what was right ‘wrestled’ with my core value of integrity and who I wanted to become; this created a path in leadership that grew lonelier as I took on more responsibility. This ‘conflict’ was made more difficult because my core personality wants to be liked, wants to be loved.

I have a good friend and colleague, Richard, who is a great thought partner. He and I visited recently about the topic of courage. We shared some thoughts and then he remembered he had written a piece about courage in 2015 under the topic of Attributes of a Leader. Allow me to share some of his writing as we widen our understanding of courage in the context of leadership. This was part of several posts he made. Included within those attributes were: Integrity, Vulnerability, Discernment, and Awareness.

“The Leader seeks to have the Courage and act with Integrity at all times. The Leader seeks to have the Courage to be Vulnerable – to be transparent, to take risks, and to ‘carry the wound with grace.’ The Leader seeks the Courage to develop and enact Discernment. The Leader seeks the Courage to embrace ‘Awareness’ – to be awake and aware and intentional and purpose-full; to be willing to be disturbed by what ‘being aware’ reveals. It takes Courage (i.e. heart) for the Leader to embrace and live into and out of the other four attributes; these are not embraced simply because the Leader is a good person and is well-intentioned.”

Richard continues (abbreviated by me):

The Leader has the Courage to trust the other(s).

The Leader also has the courage to invite and honor all voices; especially the voices of the cynical, the skeptical, the critic and the dissenter – to invite the ‘voices’ that he or she seeks to avoid or the voices that stimulate the greatest anxiety.

The Leader has the Courage to ‘name’ the undiscussables and then to engage the undiscussables with diverse voices.

The Leader has the Courage to create space for the other(s) to ‘name’ the undiscussables and then, together, engage them.

The Leader has the Courage to embrace ‘styles’ that are different from his or hers

The Leader has the Courage to seek out the ‘Why’ – as in, ‘Why are we getting the results we are getting?’

The Leader has the courage to name and enter into the agreements with the Led…they require that all provide mutual support and accountability.

The Leader has the Courage to say: “I apologize; I was wrong – forgive me.’

The Leader has the Courage to Care and to seek to serve the highest priority needs of the other(s).

The Leader has the Courage to say, ‘Thank You!’ – two words that the Led might not hear often enough.” (For full reading of Richard Smith’s blog go to Searcher Seeker January 15, 2015.)

Winston Churchill’s quote captures much of my own growth over time. Listening is the door that allows a breadth of learning not known to those who only wish to speak.

In my journey I have come to know that a lot of courage for me has been to act despite the fear that I felt. That 9-year old boy going to camp for the first time could not understand that concept – but he came to learn and embrace that fear is often a companion that wants to dictate what we do or mostly not do. We have to tell fear that “you can visit, you just can’t stay.”

I liked what Susan Pearse expressed in her May, 2017 piece for Huffington Post, in which she said:

“For some leaders in the past courage has meant showing up in their armour, protecting and perfecting. That’s not courage, that’s hiding. And people don’t connect with a leader like that. Rather courage is acting in the face of fear. Sitting with the discomfort but working through it, not around it. Showing up fiercely and completely, bringing your vulnerabilities, imperfections and inadequacies, but not being driven by them. We all have this capability inside us but it’s often not expressed at work. But it’s come to the forefront in some area in your life whether that be standing at the top of a ski slope wondering how you’ll make it down or waiting for a phone call from a loved one with news of a health crisis. We all have courage and need to bring this attribute to the workplace.”

This feels like an appropriate place to stop. How has courage, perseverance, patience shown up in your life? Part 2 will explore how and where courage shows up in our world and in our own leadership. Until then…

To a better you.


Of Interest:

 Courage, The most Important Leadership Virtue.


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