Courage: The ability to do something that frightens one; to act in accordance with one’s beliefs, especially in spite of possible criticism.
Any Google search on courage takes us to a long list of children’s books on the topic, so evidently, we value it and do our best to pass it along to children early in life. In the workplace, it is also a valued attribute that can be learned and honed, and in this blog I would like to share some tips that can help with execution.
There is a great article in the Harvard Business Review on this topic from January 2007. In this article there is an overall treatment of “Courage as a Skill” by Kathleen K. Reardon.
We often wonder what sets apart those who regularly exhibit courage in the workplace, from the rest of us. In looking at the literature on courage, there are several things that differentiate those of us who are more courageous at work, rather than individuals who “play it safe”. So, the truth is, there are some things that the courageous do that the rest of us could learn from.
Let’s start by asking ourselves a few questions. How do you decide whether to be courageous in a situation where you are considering using your courage? These questions are posed by Reardon, and I have added a few more to the list:
- Why am I pursuing this courageous action now? And what is my motivation?
- Is my action thoughtful or impulsive?
- What are the plusses and minuses of waiting a week? A month? Acting now?
- What are the people or political obstacles? Can I take action to remove or reduce some of these ahead so I can act?
- What is the worst case scenario if I do act? And am I willing to live with those consequences?
- Do I have the expertise, interpersonal skills, track record and capability to make this particular action work?
Those who do exhibit courage well, usually pick their battles, and think through the implications of their actions to some extent. They weigh what the situation at hand demands of them, and think about whether it is worth it or not to wade into battle. For many it is about timing and placement of their courageous acts. No one wants to be the first out of the gate every day of the week, so that they get “shot down” first each day. That is just exhausting. But, for the young courageous person, these things can take some time to learn.
Courage can be simple. After the Boston Marathon bombing there were several people who exhibited extreme courage, but in a Forbes article that speaks about the very matter of fact way one person handled the clean-up. For example, in a conversation about the clean-up, one agency said this was the shop owner’s job, and the leader in this situation simply said, “We are doing business differently today” and the clean-up happened. This sort of decisiveness, in the right moment, shows courage.
I love a categorization system that Bill Treasurer, Entrepreneurs’ Organization Speaker and Owner of Giant Lean Consulting, has created. As a former member of the US High Diving Team with over 1500 dives from heights above 100 feet, Bill knows what it’s like to act courageously. He breaks courage into three categories in his blog titled “Courage is the Key to Great Leadership”:
TRY COURAGE: The courage of initiative and action – making first attempts, pursuing pioneering efforts, and stepping up to the plate.
TRUST COURAGE: The courage of confidence in others – letting go of the need to control situations or outcomes, having faith in people and being open to direction and change.
TELL COURAGE: The courage of voice – raising difficult issues, providing tough feedback and sharing unpopular opinions.
So, do it – be courageous! Step out of your comfort zone! And remember to ask yourself some of those key questions just ahead of acting!
“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage” – Anais Nin