Columns , Leadership

Courage: the strength behind it all

Compassion, curiosity and courage are a potent antidote to the common fears that can paralyze us as human beings.

Courage: the strength behind it all
When exercised together, compassion, curiosity and courage are a potent antidote to the common fears that can paralyze us as human beings.

We’ve been focusing lately on the first two components of emotional agility: compassion and curiosity. Now, we turn our attention to the final component, courage.

“Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.”
— Maya Angelou

As Maya Angelou suggests, courage is an essential virtue because of its empowering effect on all other virtues. Courage is needed to step up to a challenge and stay the course when faltering would be easy. Courage is required to stand up to a bully. And as Professor Dumbledore observed, it takes courage to stand up to your friends. But when exercised, courage can be incredibly empowering and invigorating, propelling us in the direction of our dreams.

Courage in the Outer World

Each day produces regular examples of courage in action. To name just a few:

  1. Leaning in and moving on: When the going gets tough, the tough get going, as the saying goes. Sometimes this can look like the strength to not give up, not give in and to keep persisting even at the darkest hour. But courage is also necessary in order to recognize and accept that the time is right to move on from a situation, be it in your career or a relationship, when it is no longer serving you.
  2. Speaking in public: Surveys consistently report that people rate public speaking as one of their greatest fears, so this one literally speaks for itself. Finding your voice and expressing knowledge, truth or wisdom in a public setting can be one of the greatest forms of empowered self-expression.
  3. Having the difficult conversation: Perhaps one of the most fearful experiences for many of us is addressing something we find difficult to speak about. Life seems to provide an endless array of opportunities for difficult discussions, whether it is advocating for a raise you believe is deserved, addressing an issue of medical judgment with a colleague or finding a way to discuss the impact of a loved one’s addiction issues in a truthful but constructive way. Only through courage do those conversations actually take place.
  4. Challenging the status quo: To speak up about something you’re genuinely passionate about, especially when you know you’re in the minority, takes great courage. The film “RBG” explores this kind of courage as it chronicles the legal and judiciary career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Before joining the U.S. Supreme Court, this shy, diminutive woman was a tireless crusader for gender equality whose courage ultimately led her to successfully argue several high-profile gender-equality cases before an all-male High Court. She could have been another well-intentioned person who wanted to see the world change for the better. But because of her courage and perseverance, she was instrumental in creating that change.

“Abandon the idea of being fearless and instead walk directly into your fears, with your values as your guide, toward what matters to you. Courage is not an absence of fear; courage is fear walking.” — Susan David, Ph.D.

Courage in Your Inner World

“A man with outward courage dares to die; a man with inner courage dares to live.”
— Lao Tzu, “Tao Te Ching”

Doug Silsbee’s book “Presence-Based Leadership” offers an insightful analysis of how we are wired and why courage helps us grow:

“Our ‘psychobiology’ is the sum of what we’ve learned throughout our life experiences that is deeply embedded (embodied) in our physiology. It is the physical corollary of our human identity. This psychobiology manifests in our habit nature.

“Our identity is our self-image. When our identity is challenged, we are shaken. We act to protect our identity sometimes by hiding, lashing out or defending. Our psychobiology will do nearly anything to preserve the sense of self that we’ve developed. We are quite capable in familiar situations. We are much less flexible and resourceful than we need to be in unfamiliar situations. Our well-established identities actively resist change.

“Recognizing our own habit nature and the limitations of our existing identity/self-image is necessary if we want to grow and develop. The process involves putting our established identity on the line, potentially expanding it to include new elements that we never imagined possible or perhaps letting go of who we thought we were in order to become someone new.”

To experience personal growth, then, we must become vulnerable and present with our whole selves — the good, the bad and the ugly. This requires the courage to see our biases, projections, pain, resistance and other ego-driven perceptions. By gently being with these things and meeting whatever shows up within us with curiosity and compassion, we begin the work of transformation and can get unstuck.

To summarize, using Silsbee’s words once again, having the courage to be more present with ourselves “is a doorway into accelerated development and new ways of being. It’s not always pleasant, but it’s real, raw and new.”

“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”
— E.E. Cummings

In “Daring Greatly,” Brene Brown captures the essence of this real and raw state that Silsbee describes:

“The only thing I know for sure after all of this research is that if you’re going to dare greatly, you’re going to get your ass kicked at some point.

“If you choose courage, you will absolutely know failure, disappointment, setback, even heartbreak. That’s why we call it courage. That’s why it is so rare. Courage means being vulnerable. It’s about showing up when you can’t predict or control the outcome. The real barrier to being courageous is our armor — the thoughts, emotions and behaviors that we use to protect ourselves when we aren’t willing and able to rumble with our vulnerability. Instead of using armor for self-protection, we must make a commitment to lean into our vulnerability, to stay curious and generous, to stick with the messy middle part of challenging situations, to take a break and circle back when necessary, and to be fearless in owning our parts.

“Self-awareness and self-love matter. Practicing self-compassion and having patience with ourselves are essential.”

“The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.”
— Pema Chödrön, “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times”

New Frontiers

So, the challenge and the opportunity for all of us is to access the compassion, curiosity and courage available within us to explore our own internal new frontiers. Invariably, those explorations lead us to an assessment of ourselves in the context of our values and our purpose, as Susan David, Ph.D., described in a recent blog post:

“Self-doubt is never an isolated emotion. It is connected to what we value: If we doubt our ability to give an important presentation, it could be because we value being a skilled employee and want to do high-quality work. Take the time to clarify the value you’re concerned about living up to. Our uncomfortable feelings are signposts, leading us in the direction of our values.

“If dealt with compassionately and with curiosity, self-doubt can guide you toward a greater clarity of purpose and help you make decisions that fulfill that purpose. No one feels confident and courageous all the time. But once you notice your feelings and let them lead you to your values, you’ll find it within yourself to be brave. Don’t let your doubt paralyze you.

“Remember, courage is not the absence of all fear. … Courage is taking actions based on your values, even when you’re afraid. With practice and reflection, our self-compassion can be an antidote to self-doubt. It’s a journey, though. Sometimes it’s hard work to be kind, especially to ourselves.”

When exercised together, compassion, curiosity and courage are a potent antidote to the common fears that can paralyze us as human beings. Things like our fear of failure or the fear that arises when someone or something threatens our self-image.

As we become more adept at acknowledging and accepting any inner resistance or fear that arises in the form of doubt, worry, anxiety or panic, we open ourselves to personal growth and fulfillment. We become more and more able to tap into our own inner strength and wisdom and to live authentically and courageously.

Go With the Flow co-columnist Trey Cutler is an attorney specializing in veterinary business matters. Co-columnist Dr. Jeff Thoren is immediate past president of VetPartners and founder of Gifted Leaders, a Phoenix company offering leadership and coaching services.

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