“He had staked everything on starting his high-tech business – all his own savings, the borrowed stakes of friends and relatives, and all the credit his cards could handle. He boldly promoted his fledgling company in the face of powerful competition. But when faced with the need to address the performance of a floundering key executive, he was traumatized.”
This is a true story. While this entrepreneur’s new venture was certainly a courageous undertaking, he didn’t experience much trepidation in his company’s challenging birth. But when he encountered a situation that required holding an executive accountable for his actions, he “cowered”. He feared an angry exchange, feared the man might leave, join his competitors; he feared how others would perceive him, feared his ability to go toe-to-toe with a man who had a quick temper. This he experienced as a true test of courage – his courage frontier!
What is courage? For this article, I’m focusing on this particular variety of courage: a values-based decision and action, undertaken despite the fear of consequences.
In this sense, then, courage is not an emotion. Nor is it just a decision. It is a decision followed by an action. It is an action despite emotion – action in the face of real, perceived, or potential threats. A truly courageous act, then, feels like going off the edge of a cliff, as if everything is at stake, with no guarantees, no assurances, and no safety net!
I’ve made many decisions that were controversial, risky, daring in the eyes of the world, but because I was so determined, or blind, or clear, I do not characterize those as courageous actions. When I think of courage frontiers, I think of the times when I was emotionally in pain: fearful of potential consequences, intimidated about how some might react, petrified by the possible losses. It’s in the face of emotions like these that true courage is necessary. In other words, what defines courage is the willingness to act in concert with deeply held beliefs and values and vision, despite the emotional stirrings.
What are your current tests of courage – your courage frontiers?
Here are some recent instances in which I’ve seen clients face a personal courage frontier:
- A younger brother, selected as his father’s successor, needing to be assertive with his volatile older brother.
- A not-for-profit Executive Director needing to take a stand on a critical issue in the face of her Board’s pressure to capitulate.
- An executive daring to engage in a vital conversation with his female boss, whose seeming coldness was intimidating to him.
- A son-in-law learning to claim his own voice with both his father-in-law boss and his own wife.
These are situations laden with emotional trauma. In each instance, an objective outsider could easily dismiss the risks: “You just have to…”. But that “just” is enormous for the one facing the situation!
What are the situations you are facing now that require courageous action on your part? In what situations are you:
• Compromising important values
• Tolerating an intolerable situation – with an employee, a customer or a boss
• Failing to act on your own best judgment
• Hesitating to claim leadership
• Being more responsible for the lives of others than they are for themselves
• Stifling your voice in the face of an unethical practice
• Attempting to ignore reality – about people, products, competition, etc.
• Ignoring the signals of your own exhaustion, discouragement, lack of hope, etc.
What is at risk in these courage frontiers?
To forge ahead at the edge of these courage frontiers may mean risking the image we’ve so assiduously constructed for ourselves over the years. At the same time, we threaten the image we hope others have of us.
Murray Bowen described predictable responses to an increased level of maturity (differentiation). He observed that we can expect others to react when we break out of a pattern of fear-based behavior. We can expect, e.g.:
• Expressions of disappointment, resentment, even disgust
• Outright or implied threats, including threats to leave, or job loss
• Loss of expressions of endearment, affection
• Anger, even wrath
• Resistance, even sabotage
• Attempts to form alliances against us
• Various other forms of emotional blackmail
In other words, some of the very reactions we feared!
This is understandable. After all, we’re breaking a pattern that had existed for some time. In that sense, we’ve violated trust, a pact that had developed in which we had implicitly agreed not to cross certain lines.
What to do?
This kind of “work” as a leader requires an uncommon dose of self-honesty, self-responsibility, self-awareness, and self-discipline. For one client recently, the critical turn came when he sheepishly described his behavior as “childish.” He had finally come to terms with himself. This acknowledgment, painful though it was, became a freeing admission. It cleared the way for a more mature, less emotional response. He saw the challenge as a kind of “growing up” he needed to undertake. So the brutally honest recognition of the current situation is often the first step.
The next step may be an attitudinal letting go – or acceptance of consequences. Here:
• Values become more important than image
• Truth becomes more precious than safety
• Progress becomes more vital than a disingenuous peace
• Genuine relationships become more valued than those built on pretense
Even with these attitudinal changes, though, we have not yet done anything courageous! Courage is a decision and an action!
My favorite stall tactic, then, is to ask “But HOW? How can I do this? What’s the best way?”
Peter Block, a guru on leadership for decades, addresses the “How?” question in his latest book. The title is the answer: “The Answer to How is Yes”. Within the first couple of pages, he struck to the heart of the matter. Some excerpts:
“There is something in the persistent question How? That expresses each person’s struggle between having confidence in their capacity to live a life of purpose and yielding to the daily demands of being practical.”
“How? Is a symbol of our caution and reinforces the belief that, no matter what the question, there is an answer out there that I need and will make the difference.”
“If we could agree that for six months we would not ask How?…We might put aside our wish for safety and instead view our life as a purpose-filled experiment whose intention is more for learning than for achieving and more for relationship than for power, speed, or efficiency.”
That’s HOW! So in those situations you identified before, what do you need to do to move past HOW?
There is an irony that emerges here: in my own life experience and in the experience of my clients, the most courageous acts, in the long run, are the most healthy, positive and life-giving actions not only for the person who is acting, but for the others involved, and for the business itself. It is more fruitful to deal with reality and truth than to operate in blindness, denial or fear.
Here’s a related ironic twist: the fears that block our courageous acts are so often unfounded! The confrontation we feared turns out to be an initial moment of severe discomfort, followed by an honest, open conversation that breaks a long-standing ice jam! Or the person actually appreciates the fact that we’ve taken the time and care to address an issue. And though we feared losing the respect or affection of others, these actually rise among the people most important in our lives – including ourselves. So our customers say, in effect, “It’s about time!” when we thought we’d lose the account!
Whatever the consequences, though, a courageous decision confers peace of mind and acceptance. As the ad says, “Priceless!”
That entrepreneur in the original story? He learned to take a clear stand, delivered some difficult messages, held steady through the inevitable reactions, and insisted on a solution that was wise and truthful.