Courage is the proactive response to fear.

If we accept that fear is not a choice, then courage is needed to face and overcome our fears.

Courage may be the fear associated with the threat of physical harm. Reacting to that fear and responding- like so many men and women in professions such as firefighting, search and rescue, police work, military service do- is to live this type of courage daily.

However, in discussions of leadership, we are talking about reacting when the fear is something different than fear of physical harm. It may be the fear of loss- perhaps the loss of position, or possession, or the favor of someone whose approval you desire.

The response needed to face these types of fear must come from something that is not reactive, something that has been cultivated and nourished within us; it our personal sense of right and wrong that surfaces when the situation is ambiguous and unpopular.

If we are in positions of responsibility, we will undoubtedly be faced with these types of choices. A superior asks you to simply skew a few numbers of a report. Someone intimidates you in a subtle way if you voice opposition to a decision even though within you, you know it is not the best or ethical choice for the company. You need to defend an unpopular employee because she is skillful, competent, and should be given an increase or promotion, and not have it withheld because she doesn’t fit some arbitrary measure unrelated to job performance.

Our internal thought response to these situations – mundane work life situations- will be guided by our sense of right or wrong. But our behavior – what we do, will be tested by our willingness to do what is right even if we loose face, favor, or position. That is where courage comes in during these times.

In these examples we could allow “situational ethics” to let us say nothing and rationalize that “it’s not my fault” or “my decision”. I would suggest that situational ethics don’t define courage or moral character. Rather it is behavior based on clearly understood values of what it is right and true, not analysis based on context.

In the book April 1865: The Month That Saved America, Jay Winik writes an account of two men who demonstrated this type of courage. One Sunday, shortly after the defeat of the South in the Civil War, a courageous black man walked into St. Paul Episcopal Church and sat down. When the time came to serve Communion, this man quietly rose and went to the front of the church and knelt down. It is reported that a silence hung in the air and I would imagine it was one of tension and potentially hate and frustration at defeat. I believe this black man’s name was never known, however, before anyone else reacted, another man stood up, walked to the front of the church and knelt down beside him and the rest of the church soon followed. The second man of courage that day was Robert E. Lee, recently defeated leader of the Confederate Army.

Either man could have found reason to not take those steps that day. The first could have easily said, ‘Not now, I will wait, go in a year, a black man has never been in that church before. What will they do to me? What will my own people think I am trying to do? Will I be killed, or shunned?’

Lee could have stayed in his seat and thought, ‘I’ve done my part, given enough already, let someone else handle this.’

Both demonstrated courage of character, belief, and lifted himself above the fear of the unknown and ambiguity of the moment.

Courage in leadership:

  • Is always action, not just words.
  • Is associated with adversity and hardship – for you, not “the other guy”.
  • Is not an act of calculation, but an act of conviction.
  • Knows success or acceptance isn’t guaranteed – even doing the right thing, may mean failure or sacrifice.

  1. Jeff says:

    I think you probably intended for the word “intimates” in the 5th paragraph to be “intimidates”.

    The black man and Robert E. Lee story is a poignant reminder of what true character and courage really means.

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