When most people pause long enough to think about courage, their mind goes to physical acts of bravery. They may think of heroic soldiers in combat or cancer patients undergoing chemo. They may think of a tightrope walker or a circus acrobat. Or they may think of a famous person in history: Lawrence of Arabia on camelback in the desert, perhaps, or Rosa Parks on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
But courage takes many other forms. The presence or absence of courage is often as close as our lips and feet: it is our next word, our next step. It plays an important role in the success or failure in any endeavor, professional or personal. It can determine the health and vitality of our careers, our businesses, even our families.
In addition to raw physical bravery, courage can show up in social, intellectual, and emotional ways. People can muster courage to make the right decision, or not; they can take the appropriate course of action, or not; and they can think the trusting thought rather than the cynical thought, or not.
People can find the courage to speak up, to stand up, and to show up in big and noble ways, or not. They can have the courage to turn away from so-called humor masquerading as racism or sexism, or not.
They can seize the courage to volunteer when no one else is volunteering, to ask a question on everybody's mind that nobody else is asking, to challenge the status quo and the assumptions everyone else is using—or not.
Sometimes, courage is simply a matter of perseverance. Mary Ann Radmacher once observed that courage can be the refusal to abandon hope. "Courage doesn't always roar," she said. "Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day, saying: I will try again tomorrow."
Whenever I recall that quotation, I think of Michael Jordan, perhaps the best basketball player ever. He spoke candidly about his failures and his refusal to give up. "I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career," he said. "I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the winning shot and missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed."
It seems to me that courage, regardless of whether it is physical or social, whether it is intellectual or emotional, shows up in three different ways: discipline, initiative, and perseverance. Consider their importance. Without discipline, you lack the purposefulness and control you need to govern your thoughts, words, and deeds. Without initiative, you never look at things differently, you never get started on something, and so you have no impact. Finally, without perseverance, the long odds against success always carry the day. You lose because you give up. In effect, the house wins.
Together with strategic focus, curiosity, and passion, courage is an essential ingredient of organic growth. As we have argued before, these four things are the stuff of full, creative engagement in the workplace. Focus is engagement of the eyes. Curiosity is engagement of the mind. Passion is engagement of the heart. Courage is engagement of the will.
With a culture of all four, organizations can accomplish just about anything. Organic growth will come naturally. Without them, success is and always will be a roll of the dice. It may find you, but you won't find it.
Of the four, courage is most evident in its action. While it can take abundant courage to challenge one's own thinking, to reframe issues, to consider new approaches, the action that follows is the embodiment of it. That is what people see and hear, and it is what they remember. It's one thing to intend, to expect, to assume, or to plan differently. It is quite another thing to do it.
In business, we unfortunately see the absence of courage all too often. That has always been true, but it is especially true in the wake of so many mergers and restructurings and so much downsizing and offshoring. When people are fearful of losing a job, they are bound to show less courage. They want to play it safe. That is all the truer in companies that have unwisely chosen the path of repeated, scattered reductions in force—what some of us call "rolling thunder." In those companies, no one knows when or where the next storm will hit, so everyone remains mentally indoors.
Fear is pervasive. Many otherwise good, competent people are fearful of appearing uninformed or inexperienced or unsophisticated. Many are afraid to speak up in a meeting, out of concern that others will later ridicule them. Many are timid about asking a senior executive an important question in a town-hall meeting or a skip-level lunch.
What can you, in whatever capacity you are, do to nurture a culture of more courage? How do you begin?
Here are just a few things you can do. With a little brainstorming you'll be able to add to this list. Ask yourself: How many of these things do you and your peers make a habit of?
Show your own courage, so that you are leading by example. That is true for all four of these touchstones, but it is especially true for courage.
There are many other such strategies you can bring to bear on behalf of passion. We discuss them in our Master Class. Click on the Master Classes tab for more information.