Sustaining Courage in Trying Times

By Monica C. Worline

(Back to Leading in Trying Times)

We must assume our existence as broadly as we in any way can; everything, even the unheard-of, must be possible in it. - Rilke

To live in the unheard-of requires courage. Leaders in trying times are called on to act in extraordinary ways that require them to face their experience in the broadest possible way. By engaging in extraordinary activity, leaders can shape their organizations into vessels for courageous action. In the wake of the attacks in New York, one consultant's advice to leaders: "Be vulnerable." Action in trying times breaks standard routines and violates everyday expectations. Leaders become a living embodiment of an organization's values. When leaders undertake extraordinary action, they demonstrate the possibility of sustaining courage in trying times.

Courageous leaders galvanize organizations and transform them into vessels for courageous action.

Starting Assumptions

  1. Courage is one of the defining human virtues in almost all cultures. 
  2. People who act courageously often don't see themselves that way. 
  3. In organizations, courageous acts are powerful because they break ordinary routines or violate expectations. 
  4. Courage has a rousing quality that stirs people. Courage also contains an edge of confrontation. If these qualities are not tempered with other values, such as reflection or compassion, courage has the potential to be exploited for destructive purposes. 
  5. Courage is usually defined as freely undertaking dangerous or difficult action in pursuit of a valued end. This definition is inadequate, due to the potential for exploitation. Courage must be tied to notions of fundamental interconnection between people. People who experience shared humanity with others are more likely to act courageously. 
  6. Courage has a complicated relationship with fear. Fearlessness is not the same as courage. Courageous people use fear as a guide to understand how to sustain difficult action. 
  7. Courage is strongly linked to the feeling of inspiration. People in the organization can be inspired by witnessing acts of courage undertaken by leaders and by other members of the organization. Stories of courage are also inspiring and lead to some of the same effects. 

Understanding the Nature of Courage in Organizations

Leaders who want to sustain courage in trying times must recognize that, in essence, courage draws on both human individuality and human connection. In order to foster courage, a leader must make room for highly individual thought and action, at the same time communicating a strong sense of the vision, mission and sense of the organization as a whole.

  • Undertaking courageous action draws on our ability to be highly individual. It demands that people see the whole system and have the independence to take action that is outside accepted routines or expectations. High individuality also calls for a sensitive mastery of fear, and reason and judgment in the face of risk. In trying times, leaders can sustain courage by fostering high individuality, breaking standard norms and routines in order to accomplish worthy goals. 

  • People implicitly use their sense of the organization as a whole to judge the courage of those around them. Leaders who strive toward a sense of shared humanity, who embody what the organization can be at its best and who project a strong vision and mission for an organization will be able to galvanize courage in their organizations. 

Courage As a Galvanizing Force

Leaders who understand that courage is born from the experience of individuality in service of the organization as a whole can engage people and galvanize them into action.

  • Call on people's courage 
    Leaders often call on courage in trying times because it is an idea that rouses energy to overcome obstacles or face uncertainty. William James thought of courage as a way to energize the human will. Call on people's courage in service of the best that the organization can be. 
  • Take extraordinary action that serves the mission of the organization 
    Most people who act with courage report they were "just doing what needed to be done." Leaders who are serving the mission of the organization in extraordinary ways may not find themselves courageous, but others in the organization will notice. Courageous activity stands out against a background of taken-for-granted norms, routines and assumptions. When leaders undertake extraordinary activity that embodies people's vision of the organization, they are likely to be seen as courageous and to prompt others to act. 
  • Don't be afraid to be afraid
    To call upon courage is to acknowledge that there is fear, risk or vulnerability in the air. At a time when people across the nation are feeling vulnerable, stories of courage are especially important in reminding us we can master fear and continue to act in the face of vulnerability. Leaders who act with courage are not fearless. Fear can serve as a reminder to be mindful. Firefighters often talk about trusting in their fear as a way to tell them how to handle dangerous situations. Expressing a sensitive mastery of fear can draw out the same emotional capability in others. 
  • Find and celebrate models of what is possible
    The experience of courage in an organization produces feelings of inspiration that can change people's sense of what is possible. Stories of courage often carry the same feelings of inspiration and expanded possibility. Finding, sharing and celebrating expanded visions of what is possible can sustain a sense of courage. 

Transforming Organizations into Vessels for Courageous Action

Organizations can become vessels for courageous behavior when leaders emphasize the importance of individual action that serves the mission and vision of the organization at its best.

  • Support activity outside of usual bounds
    Organizations that sanction individual thinking, creativity and action outside of normal routines will not foster courageous behavior. Leaders who sustain courage have knowledge and sensitivity to detect extraordinary activity and support it. Action outside of usual bounds that serves the mission of the organization as a whole will inspire others. 
  • Differentiate courage from heroics
    There is a difference between courage that inspires and "heroics" that violate connections between people and put the integrity of the organization at risk. Aristotle taught that courage is the balance between being overly afraid and overly confident. Foolhardy behavior and self-serving heroics are different from true courage, and people in an organization will easily know the difference. In the most recent Harvard Business Review, John Badarraco2 writes that organizations "don't need another hero." True courage in organizations is born from individual action that is undertaken with awareness and sensitivity to the interconnections between people and a sense of how that action serves the organization as a whole. 
  • Build daily practices that foster a tendency toward courage
    Courage is born in moments that demand people's simultaneous ability to remain true to themselves and to remain connected to others. Because of its momentary quality, it is impossible to instill courage directly. But leaders and organizations can foster an ability to be courageous by reinforcing and encouraging autonomy and individual thought that challenges accepted norms on behalf of the organization's overall objectives. 
  • Recognize situations that allow people to develop mastery
    Witnessing courage can create self-defining moments for people who are prompted to re-evaluate the way they see themselves and the way they craft their work. When courage embodies an organization's values and is accompanied by feelings of inspiration, people often expand their vision of who they are and what they can accomplish. Leaders who foster and sustain courage in their organizations are sensitive to situations in which people have the potential to act on this expanded sense of themselves and their role, allowing people to develop mastery. 
  • Attend to building trust and respect in working relationships
    An experience of extraordinary action in an organization can change the quality of connection between people. An experience of courage often deepens people's sense of qualities such as trust and respect in their dealings with others. Leaders who are sustaining courage in their organizations often will do things that build trust and respect. 
  • Bring the whole alive
    Courage brings the organization alive for people. An experience of extraordinary activity that serves the organization creates a visceral and sensual experience of the organization at its best, deepening people's understanding and commitment to the mission and vision of the organization. Leaders who sustain courage in trying times share their successes and their heartbreaks, conveying stories that bring the organization alive for its members.

An Example of "Sustaining Courage in Trying Times"

The Miracle of Ladder Company 6

This article was a fascinating story not only of a miracle coming out of a tragedy, but also about the courage of the firefighters and the compassion shown to them by people trying to escape the Twin Towers. This particular ladder company was in the number one tower headed to the front line, 80 floors up. The men befriended a woman who had made it down from the 73rd floor. All were in the stairwell by the fourth floor when the building began to collapse. Miraculously all made it out and this article tells their story of courage, selflessness and duty.

Monica Worline is an advanced Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Organizational Psychology at the University of Michigan.
She is completing a dissertation on courage in organizational life, and is a co-author of the forthcoming article Courage and Work: Breaking Routines to Improve Performance in Emotions at Work (Lord & Klimoski, Eds.).
The quote above is by German poet Ranier Maria Rilke, translated here by J. Mood. (1993). Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties.
Badaracco, J. "We Don't Need Another Hero." Harvard Business Review, September 2001.