Courage: Learned or Innate?

Over the last couple of years, courage has become more and more interesting to me.  I have come to understand that people move to compassion more easily than they move to courage.  I see a tremendous lack of courage in organizations and in our culture broadly.  And, I have come to see how that relates to apathy, depression, inefficiency, and inaction.  I have also seen courage defined in some pretty odd ways—more in terms of endurance:  the courage to take one more kick in the gut.

The American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd edition, defines courage as:

The state or quality of mind or spirit that enables one to face danger, fear, or vicissitudes with self-possession, confidence, and resolution; bravery.

It defines vicissitudes as:

One of the sudden or unexpected changes or shifts often encountered in one’s life, activities, or surroundings.

It’s not the ability to take another kick in the gut.

Some time ago, I found myself in an intense conversation with colleagues in the peacemaking community about whether courage was innate or learned.  I’m not sure we came to a conclusion as a group in that discussion, but it certainly refined my thinking.  I came away with a sense that it is both.

Some children seem to come into the world more fearless than others, and that can mature into courage, which indicates an awareness of the fear or danger and the strength to face it.  Some people manifest great courage when cast into extreme circumstances, as John McCain describes in Why Courage Matters.  Others learn it, at various rates, through the example of others, which is why the example described in Are You Tough Enough is such an important one.

Since we are mutually co-arising, the courage we each embody effects the courage we all embody.  So, when someone in your organization is showing courage, he or she is doing a greater part of the heavy lifting in relation to how courageous the organization is overall.

This complex topic, given the state of our organizations, bears some careful thinking.  The Organizational Courage Assessment created by Kilmann, O’Hara, and Strauss provides some interesting food for thought.  It measures courage through a range of observed behaviors in the organization.  You can take this inventory on your own or with a group.  And, if you take it in a group, you may or may not want an outside facilitator to help lead a discussion of your results which may lead to an action plan for improving courage in your organization or work group.

Lack of courage leads to such things as a victim identity and lack of innovation.  Cowardice, its opposite, can lead to some pretty vicious behavior toward others.  Often, it seems to me that the worst interpersonal behavior I see in organizations results from cowardice.

Some people will say that it’s easy to understand why our courage flags:  we live in such difficult times.  It seems we have always lived in difficult times.  Even excess and abundance create their difficulties.  It’s just that, too often, we don’t notice that kind of difficulty very quickly.  We also live in times of great opportunity.  It’s often more a question of which opportunity to seize rather than whether there are any opportunities.  Even in times of economic straightening there are opportunities.. It’s just that they are more often created through our own ingenuity than handed to us by others.

How to “grow courage” was definitely an important sub-theme in that conversation with my colleagues.  The common theme seemed to be taking risk—regularly, intelligently, and progressively.  Building risk tolerance seems to build “courage muscles.”  Not engaging with risk seems to diminish courageousness.

Risk can occur in many forms.  It includes speaking up to someone who you perceive to be an authority figure.  It can include designing and launching a new product, changing jobs or careers, starting a new course of study, moving to a new town or country—or repairing a valuable relationship which has become damaged.

One thing that is clear to me is that courage starts with individuals—not systems.  But, the quality of the system is definitely informed by the nature of the courage of the individuals.  And, it’s clear that courage in the face of great hostility or overweening power, whether it is authority or influence based, can be fatiguing.  That does not mean we should not be courageous and seek to be the heroes of our own lives, whatever that may mean to each of us.

A few years ago, I was talking with a colleague in the workplace about a difficult decision we needed to make that could cause him to take action that could be dangerous to his career prospects.  I acknowledged this and raised the question of whether, in his current role, he had sufficient power to move the initiative forward.  He sat up in his chair, smiled, thumped his chest with his forefinger and said, “I have all the power I need right in here.”  That stuck with me.  We all have all the power we need right within ourselves, and if we don’t think we do, it’s time to build some courage muscles.

  • Alicia

    Jean, thank you for this article. I timely read for me today as I prepare for my talk at the XP2014 conference next week!

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