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Moving On...In Search of Courage

“Ain’t It the Truth! What makes the Hottentot so hot, what puts the ‘ape’ in apricot, what have they got that I ain’t got? Courage!” ~ From “If I were King of the Forest,” in The Wizard of Oz, 1939

I highly recommend the September issue of Fast Company Magazine, which is devoted to profiles in courage — both past and present, both political and corporate, both military and athletic and as you might imagine, there are as many definitions of courage as there are profiles.

Yes, I think we would agree that it takes courage to stand up for your beliefs, to put yourself in harms way to defend your country, to be a ‘whistle-blower’, to devote yourself to that which supports humanity, our country and the individual principles you base your life depend on. So how do we balance standing up for what’s right, fighting when called upon to do so and speaking up when it’s needed without hurting others or being called selfish?

One of the foremost articles was by Senator John McCain and as much as I respect the senator, there are a couple of things he said that I don’t necessarily agree with. Granted most of us have not had his challenge of being a prisoner of war, yet many of us have had our own share of times when we were called upon to step up to the plate, lay our fear aside and summon the courage to act with or without dignity and support. He says that sharing one’s secret fears with another or escaping a failing marriage are absurd examples of courage. I tend to disagree. Often times showing ones vulnerability, saying I don’t know how, my fear has me paralyzed, I can’t go on, I made a mistake, this is not good for me or for my health - whatever the particular situation is - does show courage. He does say that these may be examples of ordinary behavior of courageous people. It seems to me it takes courage to develop into a courageous person, does it not? Often times it takes more courage to stand up for ourselves than for others. This doesn’t mean we have to be mean-spirited about it, we just need to have the courage to do what needs to be done.

Of all the differences in the way people look at courage, the one thing they all agreed on is that it takes courage to stand up for the truth. Too many executives today don’t have the courage to stand up for what they know is right, too many politicians say that which they believe will get them elected, rather than what they know is truth. Know being the key word here.

When we look at the recent scandals - from Enron, to the CIA, to Abu Ghraib - how many of us remember the name of the persons accused of the wrong doing, and have forgotten the name of the persons who came forth with the truth; the ones who had the courage to blow the whistle or speak up. And how many of those in charge, in the leadership positions, have admitted responsibility and been held accountable? Have we stopped demanding accountability? Wouldn’t we rather live in a country where our leaders admit they’re wrong, make mistakes and attempt to correct those mistakes rather than pretend they were given misinformation or deny culpability altogether? Perhaps if we create enough safety for people to speak up and reward those honest actions — there won’t be a need for whistle-blowers.

How can we practice our courage muscle? One way is do an “after-action review”. Perhaps at the end of each week, sit down and look at the decisions you’ve made and the actions you’ve taken. If you’ve experienced tough moments and come through them, this will enable you to ‘see’ how you operated and what worked. Another way is to put yourself in situations that get you outside your comfort zone. The more you can force yourself to go 30% further than you’ve gone before, the better you’ll be prepared to stretch in times of stress.

Try to shift your attitude around this ‘muscle-stretching’. Try seeing it as an adventure rather than a fearful chore. As Charlie Chaplin said, “Life can be wonderful if you’re not afraid of it. All it takes is courage, imagination….and a little dough.”

“It’s courage based on confidence, not daring, and it is confidence based on experience.” Dr.Jonas Salk, on administering the experimental vaccine for polio to himself, his wife and his three sons. Courage is not necessarily without thought, nor is taking unnecessary chances. Courage is also different from bravery. Courage is often quiet and may not receive kudos. Yet, YOU will know the difference.

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