If I Only Had Some Courage
Many leadership bloggers and “opiners” (like me) will often reference Aristotle’s description of courage as “the first virtue”. This statement is part of the debate about what critical human characteristics of our society (possible a Bill of Rights amendment, for example) are the “most” important. From my perspective, having one, and none other, seems a little light in the toolbox of life. I prefer to think of the higher order of self-evolution as being a balance of many strengths and “virtues” which together collectively produce behavior, such as leadership, that advances the cause.
With that disclaimer out-of-the-way, let me state with all the strength of my personal conviction….whether right or wrong, effective or ineffective, or makes a difference versus indifferent, courage is a component that will determine whether those in leadership positions will either succeed or fail.
Courage comes in many forms and so it often reveals itself in ways that are unexpected, to say the least. Leaders are generally assumed to be adept public speakers because, guess what…they speak in public a lot. Comes with the territory, and yet, many leaders are absolutely terrified of speaking in front of a group. Conversely, there are many leaders who have no issue at all about speaking in public, and end their self-analysis at the point immediately before they take the stage.
Diving a little deeper into the mind of Aristotle, there is a suggestion that his statement is a bit more nuanced than it appears. “Courageously speaking out” but being wrong on the topic suggests that the critical element was not the speaking out part, but more of the learning part and getting your facts right. Questioning one’s self is a courageous act and yet, how many people confidently plunge forward with bad facts and worse conclusions, but secure in the knowledge that “they had the guts to speak”.
For me, taking Aristotle’s statement at face value misses the point and could lead to the false bravado of ignorance that catches us all from time to time. The shadow trait of courage is recklessness, which I have discussed in previous posts about judgement. Courage is learned, often through experiences, which can be both good and bad. David Ben-Gurion, the former Prime Minister of Israel at the creation of the country, described courage as “a special knowledge of how to fear what ought to be feared, and how not to fear what ought not”.
Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, I will try again tomorrow.
Returning to Aristotle, it is helpful to understand his position on courage by examining the bigger picture of his contributions to Western philosophy in general. His opinion of ethics, philosophy and science in general, was focused on the courageous learner. In Aristotle’s view, learning took courage, and learning about one’s self, including internal questioning, was the most courageous act.
It takes courage to break from the norm, challenge the status quo, seek new opportunities, cut your losses, make the tough decision, listen rather than speak, admit your faults, forgive the faults of others, not allow failure to dampen your spirit, stand for those not capable of standing for themselves, and to remain true to your core values. You can do none of these things without courage. Courage is having the strength of conviction to do the right thing when it would just be easier to do things right. – Mike Myatt, N2Growth
As leaders, or aspiring leaders, we will regularly face challenging situations. Often, they present themselves in a fashion that tempts, if not compels the leader draw on the drive, fortitude and habits of accomplishment that got us to where we are. Once we summon those values, we might then drive straight over the top of the obstacle, secure in the knowledge that we are right. From time to time, this may work out. However, when it goes poorly, the results can be equally spectacular. Courage is without question, in its purest form, the glue that binds an organization or drives a person to “do the right thing”. We count on it, manage it, and build successful teams around it. We hire and promote for it, and we teach it, internal to any didactic effort that builds confidence and competence. At its essence, courage comes from knowledge. When it comes time to summon it, ensure that your courage comes from the right place.