Courage: The Backbone Of Leadership

Facing us is the River of Fear, made deep and wide by our hesitations, timidity, doubts, and paralysis.

Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities…because it is the quality which guarantees all others. – Winston Churchill

Other than the words in this paragraph, this entire blog is taken directly from the introduction to a fantastic book I am reading by a fellow West Point graduate, Gus Lee.  Courage:  The Backbone Of Leadership clearly states what I believe about the role of courage in leadership. (Click on the title above to read more on about this book).

Courage: The Backbone Of Leadership

We Are Built to Cross Rivers

That’s why Churchill, as Great Britain faced a grand moral and national crisis, deemed courage “the first of all human qualities.”  Aristotle said that courageous virtue is the essence of not just happiness but life itself.

Cowardice is the great opposite.  Instead of building, it ruins.  Fear begins in our guts and spreads into families and organizations.  Living in fear is not living; it is tantamount to being a prisoner of our own weakness, constantly awaiting the next injustice.

Thus courage– or its absence–determines all outcomes.  Modestly put, courage decides quality of life and personal as well as institutional success.

Courage is so crucial that it sits in the heart of us.  That’s why we can’t help but admire and follow courage until we demonstrate it….

Long before the invention of the corporation, we were hardwired to show courage regardless of risk to ourselves.  Here’s what is interesting:  even today, without courage, nothing–from relationships to our firms–is safe.

Heroism’s era has not passed.  It is here, before us, for in truth, no generation, regardless of war, peace, depression, or prosperity, is spared the need to demonstrate courage.

No individual, organization, or society comes to character without struggle.  We should welcome moral struggles but have told our children that if they win in academics, they’ll succeed in life.  This runs counter to everything that wisdom teaches, and the results of this falsehood are becoming obvious.

There is much we do not control.  Yet we have a tailor-made opportunity to build our individual and collective courage.

Courage and You…

I have watched executives and managers replace behaviors of timidity, doubt, and hesitation with the high conduct of courage.  With each iteration, they grew their courage competence.  With each act, they inspired those around them to their best selves.  Over time, they built enduring teams and deep leadership benches.  They reinstalled a sense of worth and camaraderie into their work environments.

They (my clients) began, like all of us, as good people.  They didn’t cheat.  But, they wouldn’t repair conflicts.  They didn’t lie, but they tolerated gossip and avoided dialogue with bullies who hurt coworkers and impaired the efforts of employees.  Under pressure, these good people refused to cross the river of their own fears to do the right thing for others.  They silently chose inaction and tolerated the unheroic long-term destructive consequences of fear.

The Bottom Line:

What my clients discovered was that courage was not something with which we are born.  That tall, physically powerful, and imposing males have no special aptitude for courage, for each of us has fair and equal access to the first human quality.

Clients discovered that courage–facing fear, acting for what is right, correcting wrongs in oneself, and addressing problems–could be developed and strengthened through practice.  Courage is a learned quality, an acquirable set of skills, a practiced competence.


Where can you begin to practice this critical competence?



4 Responses to “Courage: The Backbone Of Leadership”

  1. Ed February 11, 2013 at 9:09 am #

    “Clients discovered that courage–facing fear, acting for what is right, correcting wrongs in oneself, and addressing problems–could be developed and strengthened through practice. Courage is a learned quality, an acquirable set of skills, a practiced competence.”

    This is an old discussion so I’ll suggest that the book’s quote missed one critical distinction, which is widely recognized. There’s a difference between physical courage and moral courage. This quote refers to moral courage.

    The fundamental difference? Physical courage faces an outside, physical threat to life and limb. Enemies, animals, natural forces, etc. sometimes test one’s character by forcing fight (courage) or flight (cowardice). Institutions (like the military) celebrate physical courage regardless of their internal culture. Physical courage against an outside threat makes them all look good, even if they’re actually rotten to the core.

    Moral courage requires an internal threat. That threat invariably comes in the form of corrupt leadership. Think about it: the boss can’t be morally courageous because he/she has the authority to do the right thing. They face no threat. If that boss is corrupt, then subordinates are faced with that same fight or flight choice while not equipped with authority. That’s why whistleblowers are so often punished; the corrupt leadership has the authority to behave like a cultural tsunami. Moral courage is often far harder than is physical courage.


    • Dave Anderson February 11, 2013 at 8:02 pm #

      I agree that moral courage is harder because it is a war fought with the lower things inside of me.

      I am not sure I follow your statement that a “the boss can’t be morally courageous because he has the authority to do the right thing”. Can you explain?

  2. Edward Dolan February 12, 2013 at 12:08 pm #

    I basically agree with Ed’s comment (of course; mi tocayo). But I would expand its scope, a bit, by lowering the volume. What he describes as the actions or failure to act on the part of “corrupt leaders” is equally true of middling, average managers and leaders. Standing on principle while the world is in flux, opting for action when we’re not sure we are in a community that shares our values is truly difficult. That is why we stand in admiration of true acts of courage. That is why Robert Kegan’s and Lisa Laskow Lahey’s work ( is so valuable. They take us back from our legitimate workplace and interpersonal complaints to the touchstone of our own values — and our need to change our own adversion to growth into something positive for us and for others.

    • Dave Anderson February 13, 2013 at 5:51 am #

      I agree. Knowing what we stand for is foundational to courage. If we are just avoiding pain, is it truly courage or self-preservation?

      Selfless courage is perhaps the most admirable.

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