This month on The Leadership Foundry Podcast we have been talking a lot about courage. We’ve explored having the “courage to lead,” the “courage to have difficult conversations” and soon the “courage to get curious.”  Courage is a frequent topic of conversation I have with my clients and colleagues. We discuss it in ways such as, “I wish I had the courage to do that thing,” or “I need to have the courage to ask my boss for this opportunity.” Most of us recognize the importance and necessity of having courage to get things accomplished in our personal and professional lives, but we often revere courage as something that’s as elusive and mysterious as the ingredients of Felix Felicis.

There is an underlying belief that courage is something to possess; that you either do or do not have it, and that you will succeed if do, and fail if you don’t. I would like to offer you a different perspective on courage. I view courage more like a muscle to be developed. Many of us have weak courage muscles. We don’t practice courage regularly and so those muscles stay weak. As a result, we don’t have the conversations we need to, we don’t ask for the promotions we desire; heck we never ask that interesting person out on a date.  But when we view courage as a personality trait that can be developed and strengthened through regular intention and practice, we’re more likely to look at situations that impose fear on us as opportunities for a courageous workout rather than as paralyzing feats of doom.  So to help us out,  I’ve gathered a few courage-inspiring quotes to help us through the steps of courageous calisthenics. Let’s begin.

“Courage is not the absence of fear, but the awareness that something else is more important.” — Franklin D. Roosevelt

The first step in developing our courage muscles is to recognize that having courage requires caring about something so deeply that you’re willing to take a risk on its behalf. Take an inventory of what you do.

  • What do you care about so much that you’re willing to ensure it succeeds?
  • Which relationships at home or in your career are ones you make sure to protect?
  • In your work, what are the projects that you’ve championed and that are important to you?

When you recognize the value these people and things bring, you realize that you will likely have opportunities to make a stand to ensure their survival. It might sound like I’m talking about making a noble speech on the capitol steps or stepping out in front of a bus to save a loved one, but opportunities for courageous action exist both in big and small ways.

I got to practice this myself this week when I apologized to my son for something I said. I made an off-the-cuff remark that made him feel like I was not respectful of the time and the energy he’d spent on a project. While my comment might have been true, I knew it had hurt his feelings and he was upset. At that moment, being “right” seemed a whole lot less important to me than my preserving my relationship with my son. I wanted his forgiveness and had to apologize—if you’ve ever had to apologize to a teenager, you know how difficult it can be to swallow your pride. It’s a vulnerable moment and requires some humility for sure. But in light of the overall importance of that relationship, the risk to me seemed small. As a result, my courage muscle got a nice little workout that day.

“Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.” — John Wayne

In his era, John Wayne portrayed characters who acted bravely, defended the weak, and took risks for justice even in the face of danger. Even when it was scary. As the quote above indicates, situations that require courage are always intimidating. It’s okay to recognize that being scared is part of the process. John Wayne felt the fear. We all feel that fear. Get comfortable in knowing that you are not alone in feeling fear—we all have something we’re afraid of or intimidated by. What happens, however when we choose to take on the courage exercise is we realize we must step into our own agency to change the situation at hand.  That is, we recognize we’ve got to saddle up anyway.

Why? Because who will do it if you don’t? You’ve identified that this is something you care about. So, if you want this thing to succeed, you’re going to have to take the stand, have the conversation, or make the pitch despite the knot in the pit of your stomach.

“Now Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he didn’t, didn’t already have.” — America, Tin Man, 1974

As I’ve said before, courage does not arrive to us in the form of a magic pill, nor is it something that someone else can give us. Like the band America points out, Oz didn’t really give the Tin Man a heart, nor when he bestowed the medal of heroism to the Cowardly Lion, did he actually grant him courage. Just as the Tin Man already had a “heart,” the Lion already possessed courage; he only had to realize it for himself. Ironically, he discovered his courage only when he faced the Wicked Witch and acted to protect Dorothy and their friends.

The same is true for the rest of us. We know we’re courageous only when we’ve acted courageously and done that thing that scares us. It’s pretty pointless to talk about how courageous you are if you never get off the sofa and do that thing you’ve been meaning to do. You can add this to your courage-strengthening exercise routine by challenging yourself to do something scary. I had a great conversation with my recent podcast guest, Dr. Carolyn Goerner in which she talked about purposefully doing difficult things. She told a fantastic story about how she once auditioned for a Broadway show even though she wasn’t a singer or dancer, simply so she could experience the process. As an avid musical fan and a researcher, she wanted to study what it was like to do something she expected to fail at.  It was nerve racking, it was scary—but she did it anyway because she wanted to practice using her courage muscles.

“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.” — Dale Carnegie

So how do you know if you’ve got courage? Well, you act courageously. You realize that there is something important worth acting for, acknowledge your fear and saddle up. It sounds difficult—and it can be. You can do it. When it feels overwhelming, start with smaller steps. The more you do to prove to yourself that you take action, the more action you take, and a beautiful, courageous cycle begins. The key is to view the process as part of growing and developing ourselves and to practice as often as we can. Here’s to many courageous workouts ahead!