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Courage—Taught or Innate?

by Jean Richardson on November 19, 2012

We seem to see a lot about courage in the press and in leadership literature these days.  We see calls for leadership and courage.  Anyone who’s ever led or been in a leadership position for a period of time—especially when things aren’t or haven’t been going well—knows that leadership requires courage.  Several months ago I found myself in an online discussion with a number of other consultants about whether courage could be taught or if it was innate, native to an individual’s character.

My observation is that some people appear to be more innately courageous than others, and that may be more a matter of nurture than nature.  At the same time, those who are less courageous can build courage by watching others model it.

Ralph Kilmann, co-creator of the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Inventory, is also co-creator, with Linda A. O’Hara and Judy P. Strauss, of the Organizational Courage Assessment.  If nothing else, this assessment does open the door to discussions about what courage looks like in our organizations and communities and how we might measure the degree of its presence in the culture.

It measures things that some people have been taught are “foolish” or “professional suicide” such as admitting mistakes to superiors, coming to the aid of co-workers who are being abused, and not following standard procedures in order to do something that actually does benefit the organization.  All of these actions likely entail risk, but they also manifest the character of individual taking those actions—and at their root, these are individual actions and choices even though they may in some cases be taken by a group.

In War and Peace Tolstoy repeatedly makes the point that Napoleon would not have been able carry warfare across Europe and into Russia if the soldiers he led had not complied.  Every act of courage or cowardice is an individual act.  The reasoning process by which we determine what is courage and what is cowardice is also ultimately an individual process even though it may be reflected in and influenced by the culture in which the individual exists.

At an Association for Graduate Liberal Studies conference where I was a speaker last June, I had the opportunity to listen to another presenter speak on the topic of whether we have, as a world society, learned the lessons of Nuremburg, yet.  The speaker was an emigration lawyer, so he was interestingly qualified to speak on the topic of the emergence of the body of law (non-existent before the Nuremburg trials) that defined “crimes against humanity.”  He then applied this notion of a “crime against humanity” to such financial disasters as the collapse of Enron and the 2008 financial market meltdown, and he considered the similarities in myriad, small individual actions in the related organizations that collectively resulted personally and societally devastating consequences.  Something to think about.

Can we transfer our culpability to others because we were “only following orders?”  And what is the difference between courage and cowardice?  How many times today might we each be faced with a decision where asking these questions is important?  If we see the courageous course and take it, what does that mean to those who witness our actions—whether or not we are apparently “successful” in the current context according to organizational norms?  Is it time to reconsider those norms?

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