When we see leaders generating breakthrough performance or challenging the “way things have always been” we often say, “wow that takes guts”…or, “that takes courage!”

This sentiment is a valid explanation from the sidelines. I’m willing to bet that if you asked the person engaged in the action, they’ll tell you that they were just acting consistently with something that was important to them. In fact, from their on-the-court perspective, it would be more painful for them not to act.

Don’t take my word for it: When you were acting “courageously”, were you aware you were being courageous? Or, were you doing what you needed to do in order to fulfill on something that was important to you? You may have been aware that what you were doing was risky or that you had some fear, but the main conversation you were having was what is more important.

What is courage really?

Webster’s College Dictionary definition of courage is the state or quality of mind or spirit that enables one to face danger, fear, or vicissitudes with self-possession and resolution.

So what is that state of mind and how do we create it?

This question led me to Ambrose Redmoon’s famous quote, “courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than one’s fear.”

So what is that ‘something else’ that is more important?

This question led me to the French root of courage, Coeur, meaning heart, or the contents of what is true for us.

Ah, so what is authentically true for you?

Accessing your courage: Discover what really matters to you.

Whether it’s engaging in a transformational leadership project, giving a performance conversation, delivering a speech, expressing interpersonal difficulty, delivering tough feedback, or asking people to do what hasn’t been done before will require you to get clear on what really matters.

The secret is to create a situation in your mind, in which it is more painful for you not to act. What I mean by that is to simply notice that not acting would be inconsistent with something of value to you or true for you. Find something more important than your natural tendency to avoid the scary predictions of what could happen. More clearly, discover what you are fundamentally committed to, which commitment is greater than your natural biological disposition for self-preservation.

Ask yourself one (or several) of the following:

  • In this situation, what really matters to me?
  • What do I really care about?
  • What am I willing to stand for?
  • What promises did I make to others or myself?
  • What promises am I willing to make to others or myself?
  • What does my job require of me?
  • What do my people need me to do?

Once you’ve discovered something that really matters to you, drill down further by asking the question, “so what is important about that for me”? Keep going until you have connected to what is true for you. You’ll know you got there when the fear you initially experienced becomes background noise.

The courageous leaders we admire are ordinary people. They do not have a courage gene. What makes them worthy of admiration is that they are oriented around something that is bigger than their fear.

Your access to (what others call) courage will be your ability to connect with and act toward what really matters to you.

When I asked Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, why she was willing to endure such personal sacrifice and criticism (what I equated to courage), she said, “what sacrifice? It is a privilege to serve those who have had nothing.”

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