Research Paper By Kathryn Yeung
(Leadership Coach, CANADA)
You get in life what you have the courage to ask for. Oprah Winfrey
This quote is so accurate and yet I can think of so many more times in my life where I was scared or not confident enough to ask the questions or to articulate what I wanted. I have often wondered what it is that makes some people so brave to speak their minds and to ask for what they want. What is it that separates someone like me from others who appear to be more successful and better equipped to thrive in work, their lives, in their relationship and in their daily pursuits?
I certainly don’t know the full formula however one of the key attributes for successful individuals is courage. Courage to voice their opinion, courage to be self-aware, courage to learn what they don’t know, courage to take risks, courage to be vulnerable and courage to be compassionate. So what is this often elusive trait and is it something that can be developed? What exactly is courage?
These are the questions that I started with as I delved into this topic in more detail.
What is courage?
Well my first thought and likely the image that a lot of people think of when they think of courage is that of a super hero or someone who acts as an everyday super hero like a police officer or a fighter. These are definitely careers that require both physical and mental courage. However when you stop and really consider what courage is it likely has many different and deeper meanings.
Courage is something that everyone hopes they have, as it is an attribute of good character that makes us worthy of respect.
Courage can be a brave deed, an act of strength that the individual may not have even known they possess. According to the Oxford dictionary, courage is a noun and means “The ability to do something that frightens one.”
The Chinese character 勇 (yǒng) refers to the concepts of bravery, courage, and valour.
It is composed of two parts: the character 甬 (yǒng) on top, from which 勇 (yǒng) receives its pronunciation, and the radical and character 力 (lì) on the bottom, which provides the meaning.
力 (lì) means strength and also indicates power, influence, and capability. The character depicts a person reaching down and using the strength of the arm to pick up an object, with the 丿 stroke representing the arm and the hooked stroke around it representing the hand.
The most intriguing part of that character is the offering of support, using your strength to help someone else out. This to me is the true representation of courage.
How is courage applied in the workplace?
In the workplace there is a quality that distinguishes great leaders, respected team managers, and high-potential employees, and that is courage. Increasingly the workplace is filled with uncertainty, the need to make quick decisions, the lines of responsibility are blurred or unclear and contradictory demands from different stakeholders add to those heightened expectations to success. All these constraints impose courage.
Courage has as much to do with our own strength as our ability to help pull up other people or even to ask for assistance when we may require it.
Courage is the mental and emotional preparedness and ability to deal with difficult, challenging, and sometimes seemingly impossible circumstances. It is the ability to confront fear, pain, danger, uncertainty, intimidation and other threats.
Emotional Intelligence (EQ) researchers say that too much emphasis has been on one’s intellect and technical competency, not on the role of trust and relationships in impacting the bottom line. At a time when employees need meaning, trust and connection in organizations; one of the most important roles of a manager is to become an “architect of trust”.
The term courage reflects this need for leaders to become trustworthy. It is through personal action and relationships that leaders develop trust and gain commitment from employees.
Courage must be expressed every day, at every level in the business world. In fact, it is not enough to simply follow orders from management. The company expects its employees to act with courage in many circumstances. That said this is not a question of taking unconsidered risks, let’s look at some of the areas where courage is critical to performance.
- Courage to face the truth and express it
- Courage to rely on others
- Courage to made decision in risky or uncertain situations
- Courage to work outside our comfort zone
- Courage to impose something new
Why develop it?
When we work to develop courage we empower ourselves with the ability to confront problems head on, as well as the skills to deal with life’s inevitable challenges. Courage is a psychological muscle. When we build any muscle, we do so to build strength and resilience.
So the good news is that courage is a skill that can be developed. We all need courage. Perhaps not every day of our lives however there are many common situations that require courage:
- Overcoming betrayal or distrust
- Having difficult conversations
- Honest constructive feedback
- Dealing with performance issues
- Making tough decisions
- Risky or uncertain situations
- Affecting popularity or jeopardizing some political standing
- Consciously choosing alignment to values as well as business results
- Following through or “sticking to” the decision
- Challenging decisions – in appropriate manner – when you don’t believe they are correct
- Relying on others
- Admitting to a mistake
- Working on something new and different, outside of your expertise
- Imposing process/rigourous standards
Therefore having the ability to grow this competency in ourselves and/or with support is commendable and even desirable.
How do we develop courage?
In building strategies for living a more productive, happy and meaningful life, developing courage provides yet another step towards taking responsibility for your state of mind, your circumstances and your well-being.
As Maxwell Maltz points out,
We must have courage to bet on our ideas, to take the calculated risk, and to act. Everyday living requires courage if life is to be effective and bring happiness.
Here are some steps that you can take to build our courage “muscle”:
Acknowledge and understand that it’s not the absence of fear
Even the most courageous of us experience fear and trepidation. John Wayne said,
Courage is being scared to death — and saddling up anyway.
Many people experience a feeling fear and uncertainty when doing something new or outside of their “comfort zone”. And yet it is in this space where real growth and development often occur. It takes courage to acknowledge that feeling and yet still move into that space.
Muster up the willingness to do so
Before you can acquire any habit, or character trait, you must have a strong desire or willingness to do so. Contemplating the alternative, which would be to live in fear or a position of great vulnerability, should provide ample motivation.
Read literature, the latest news, and watch movies about tales of courage. Reading about the courageous acts of others is very inspiring and offers examples for all of us.
Consider the courage and bravery of the ordinary men and women, the firefighters, the police and all those who gave their lives to save others. If you pictured yourself doing this type of role wouldn’t you expect that you too would act with courage? If so, apply that feeling to your current situation and take action.
Start small but start somewhere
Stepping out of your comfort zone can be intimidating at first so start out by doing something small. If you normally hold back and are afraid to speak up, offer your opinion and suggestions at the next office meeting, even if you only say one thing in the whole meeting – start with the goal of expressing your opinion at least once. Slowly, but surely build up your courage by doing the things you typically shy away from. Building courage in this way can help you when it’s time to quit that job you are not suited for or leaving a relationship that you’ve long since outgrown.
Develop faith and confidence
A large part of developing courage is having faith in yourself, faith in a higher power and faith that things will work out. This type of confidence comes from maintaining a positive attitude and visualizing a favorable outcome. A courageous mindset is the product of faith, self-confidence and positive thinking.
Link courage to coaching and application
If courage can be taught then there is a focus for coaching as well. According to Christopher Bergland, author of The Athlete’s Way, there are a few great techniques to combat fear, building confidence and courage in sport as well as life. These are:
- Scripting: Scriptingdescribes a method an althlete uses to solidify their game plan and stick to it. Athletes take inventory of their strengths and weaknesses and those of the opponent or competition. The intelligence gathering helps them to fine-tune a script. If you are going into a situation such as an important interview or blind date, do a little research about the people you’ll be coming in contact with and their affiliations; then script a possible dialogue in your head of questions and answers that might become part of a good conversation. A coach can help a client to create a mantra that can be used during stressful situations or work through the script for the uncertain scenario the client is about to experience.
In order to be truly successful, Althetes said that they needed to instill the script into ‘bodily memory’, much like a method actor would embed the dialogue of a play into his or her entire being.
Fully embodying the game plan will make you more confident and calm, especially in the adrenaline filled jittery moments just before the big event.
Remember to help your client create a game plan, embody it, review it, and rehearse it repeatedly before any big event.
- Framing: Framingis a technique used to shape how you think and feel about a situation. You can use framing to make hugely important events seem common or even ordinary. For example you can reduce performance anxiety by re-framing an ‘exam‘ by calling it a ‘quiz‘, or instead of saying “I’m going for a run” say, “I’m going for a jog.”
Athletes frame their sports using three explanatory styles:
(a) This is just like another day at the gym.
(b) This is business and I’ve got a job to do.
(c) However it turns out, this will be a valuable learning experience.
You can use this three-pronged approach to frame anything you have worked hard to prepare for and avoid psyching yourself out when it comes time to perform.
By re-framing big challenges to make them seem commonplace you can mitigate fear.
Framing losses or failures as ‘learning experiences’ is crucial for many athletes to maintain the confidence to continue and not get dejected. The power of coaching is helping a client to see the learning from experiences that didn’t go as expected or to reframe negative thoughts to positive ones that serve the client and help them to move forward and make progress towards their goal.
The reinforcement is, ‘This is one to learn from. Don’t let it this same thing happen again.’ This parable is key to The Athlete’s Way — it is imperative to look at any failure in life or sport as an opportunity for growth and to always learn from your mistakes. Never make the same mistake twice.
- Othering: Athletes create powerful alter-egos or ‘Virtual Selves” using a method called Othering. Othering requires creative thinking and the use of your imagination. The goal is to create a self-fulfilling prophecy by transforming your reality into what you fantasize it to be.
You can use your imagination to create an invincible character the next time that you find yourself in a competitive situation. Use role models and a coach to form this character and role-play pretending you are this person. Make yourself a ‘legend in your own mind’ and embody the part like an actor would. You can become anyone you pretend to be.
From a coaching standpoint a powerful tool to recreate this “othering” technique would be visualization. By asking a client to participate in a visualization exercise can have profound impacts to their ability to imagine and feel the experience that they are creating. This tool is often under-utilized by coaches and yet such a resourceful and powerful tool in the coaching toolkit. Having your client visual and describe what courage looks like, sounds like and feels like, will help them to encourage and motivate them to act with courage.
Some other Powerful questions focused on building courage (adapted from CornFerry/Lorminger’s Managerial Courage competency):
To improve your proficiency, ask yourself the following questions on a regular basis:
- What is my plan to deal with a difficult situation in order to avoid a negative outcome?
- How can I say what I have to say more tactfully?
- Will I sacrifice my short-term pain for a long-term benefit by enforcing something that may be unpopular?
- Have I dealt directly and head-on with someone I am struggling with in lieu of sending someone else to do it or altogether avoiding the situation?
- Was I poised, calm, and unemotional in my last uncomfortable confrontation?
- What situations have I given up on that I need to regroup on and try again?
- Do I put too much emphasis on negative issues?
Being a risk-taker, putting yourself “out there” is key. But often when people are asked to give suggestions for improved performance or to give constructive feedback few people speak up. It’s a risk to say what you really think, even when the ideas are good ones. Demonstrating courage is difficult, but it is especially important for managers in the workplace to walk the talk in this regard. Whether speaking to an employee about performance, bringing up an idea that may not be popular, or being honest about something you see happening that you don’t think is ethical, being authentic, demonstrating the courage of your convictions, earns respect. When your words and your actions are congruent, you build trust and by establishing trust, courage is easier to exhibit and achieve.
Courage and perseverance have a magical talisman, before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish into air. John Quincy Adams
Microsoft, Microsoft in Education; Education Competencies and Lominger International, 1996-2010
Essential Life Skills.net, Live a Life of Courage
Psychology Today, Building Bulletproof Courage, 3 Simple Ways to Turn Fear into Confidence, Christopher Bergland, 2012 – exerpt from the Athlete’s WAy
“Courage”, Christie Paul, Queensborough Community College, 2012
KornFerry/Lorminger competency – FYI Information