It would be reasonable to think that after 30 years in the consulting business, a soon-to-occur conversation with a client about expectations and money and value and making a difference would be a walk in the park. It is not. Far from it! In fact, the prospect of this conversation even pushes me as far as to feel ambivalent about my chosen career, a calling in which I have flourished by many measures. Like my left Achilles tendon, which seems to be having a dispute with my heel that threatens to prevent the exercise I need, fear is an “Achilles heel” we all understand. Fear saps our imagination, spurs us to fight or flight, and yet sometimes, mercifully, causes a rumbling force from within that we so often wish would show up in sufficient abundance to see us through. Courage (or fortitude), that seeming antidote to fear, is the third cardinal virtue, after prudence and justice and before temperance. So let us continue to look at and invite more alignment with these cardinal virtues – the virtues on which all other virtues turn – as we consider how we might move our companies toward being purposeful enterprises.
The business that seeks to make a significant positive social impact (as more and more do these days) will require a high “courage quotient” in the organization. Although courage is one of those human traits that we tend to applaud, it always seems in short supply. Why is that?. Before we look at what each of us might do to spur on courage and make the kind of choices that raise the “courage quotient” of our organizations, let’s examine the idea.
The word “courage” is evocative, almost onomatopoeic – it sounds like what it means – and unlike prudence or temperance, it is used so often that it is familiar, and can be invoked almost without recognition of what it really means.
For generations, courage was an ideal shaped by extrinsic factors – things outside of the person. It was found, above all, on the battlefield – where locked in mortal combat, true courage was to die for king and country, for the honor of the chieftain, or for a place in the hallowed halls of the gods. There, on the battlefield, courage meant to be prepared to make the greatest sacrifice of all for the common good – and at least some of the glory of winning! This virtue of courage was cultivated by the community – the family or tribe or nation – and appropriately so, for the telos – the intended end – of courage was to serve their collective greater good. Thus, for perhaps millennia, courage (or fortitude) was thought of as the overcoming of an external evil, even through death, for the sake of the community. Prudence, or wisdom applied, was still necessary to find the right balance between applying the appropriate confidence in the face of fear (both confidence and follow through are required in a courageous act) and foolishly daring to ignore the appropriate resistance and pause that fear provides.
Yet, beyond the heroism of the war-mongering ancients, there is another dimension of courage – the endurance to quietly resist an oppressor or a force of wrong or evil. This is patient resistance in the face of a difficulty that is not easily vanquished. We glimpse this kind of “quieter” courage when people quietly persevere to resist the kinds of subtle, culturally embedded abuses that lie behind poor employee opinion data by “outing” specific abusive actions and abusers through employee hotlines and consumer protection mechanisms. This is the kind of courage that perseveres through the suffering inflicted by something systemically wrong or a pervasive injustice that is too large for one person to reverse. Those who display it act in ways that evidence hope when despair is expected and far more reasonable, and their actions are of resistance and not complicity.
Today, in our post-modern culture, courage has taken on a third meaning tied up in an intrinsic motivation to be an “authentic” self. An icon of our era, Steve Jobs, summed it up in his famous 2005 Stanford commencement address when he said, “…don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.” Frank Sinatra (and later Elvis Presley) shared the sentiment even more simply with “I did it my way.” So courage became authenticity – to thine own self be true. Yet, in all this self-reference is an inescapable trap. As Daniel McInerny suggests in his essay in Virtues and Their Vices, “if authenticity can be realized in any sort of life whatsoever, then it is meaningless… it is nothing more than self-assertion, made by a shadowy protagonist without roles or any social relationship, wielding choice as a subtle or not-so-subtle form of power.” A self-referencing courage must find its anchor in service of something bigger, some other – the common good.
So, if courage is more than battlefield heroics, more than stoicism under duress, and more than self-declared authenticity, then what exactly is it? Courage closes the gap between a person as they are and the person they could become, it is what realizes the potential of our better nature. Elsewhere, I have argued that to be truly human is to be for-the-other. And further, I have said that, like people, every great, meaningful business has an intention to solve a social problem or in some way contribute to the common good at its core. When a business organization recognizes that it can actually make such a positive social contribution to society, all kinds of energy is released and significant momentum is gained. But, realistically, the gulf between the possibility and delivery of a social contribution can only be bridged one simple, courageous action at a time. We must each do our part. But something about recognizing the “better” that can exist for others goes a long way toward stirring courageous action, like these examples:
- When a colleague calls to tell me that he has insisted on putting an important truth on the table with his peers – that is courage.
- When a CEO withstands personal pressure to take risks with her reputation in order to sustain a vital service – that is courage.
- When a contractor calls his client and owns up to a mistake and insists on doing it right, for free – that is courage.
- When an admin assistant tells her executive that she will no longer put up with their personal outbursts of anger – that is courage.
- When a creative leader in an agency refuses to chase awards when it requires more fakery than real creativity – that is courage.
- When a CFO makes changes to her reporting schedule so that it lands within management’s ethical boundary, even though that is far more rigorous than the probity boundary – that is courage
- When the analyst persists in digging even further into the data to find the right insight that intuition says is there but that remains elusive in the data – that is courage.
- When, in the moment-by-moment choices you and I face each day, we decide to leave our workplaces a little better at the end of the day than we found them at the beginning, and then act accordingly – that is courage.
And there is never too much courage…