Research

What Does it Mean to Be a Courageous Person?

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by Arthur Schwartz

When was the last time you acted courageously? Was it to stand up for the harder right against the easier wrong? Or was it the courage to defeat despair in the face of a debilitating disease or serious illness? Perhaps it was the courage to forgive and turn the other cheek. Or was it the courage to face your “inner demons” (such as addiction or depression)? 

Let me begin by stating the obvious: Courage is a fuzzy construct. It lacks a universally agreed upon definition. And for those empirically minded, only two validated instruments to measure courage have been developed, and both of these are relatively recent contributions to the field. On the hand courage is ubiquitous. It’s widely talked about and universally held in high regard.

Stories of courage are woven into our heroic myths and tales across all nations, religions, and cultural traditions. Here’s what else we can all agree on: courage is needed in our schools, whether we’re a 7th grade student responding to a bully or a seasoned educator who has witnessed unethical behavior.   

Defining Courage 

There is a strong consensus among scholars that courage requires three distinct components. The first is that a level of fear, risk, or danger is required for any action to be considered courageous. Interestingly, 5-year-olds think courage is limited to confronting physical fear (e.g., diving into a pool), but by age 9, children understand the capacity for psychological courage, such as the courage it takes for someone to resist peer pressure. 

Second, courage requires what scholars call a noble purpose or goal. In some cases, the goal is taking a principled stand. In other cases, the purpose of courageous action is to serve, help, or benefit some greater good (whether it is helping a friend or serving your nation). In his book Moral Courage, Rushworth Kidder suggests that courage is linked to our ethical commitments, including honesty, respect, responsibility, fairness, and compassion.

The third component is volition. Bill Treasurer captures the essence of this quality in his book Courage Goes to Work, with his quip “you can’t reap until you leap.” Courageous action requires agency and intentionality. Children as young as 11 recognize that courage is not simply an automatic response to an immediate stimulus, but an action we think about, reflect on, and freely choose. We know from researchers that courage requires the ability to “push beyond one’s fears and doubts.” 

In sum, we can define courage as a willingness to pursue a noble goal or purpose despite risk, danger, or fear. 

The Courageous Mindset

Current research on the nature of courage has focused on how courage is produced. Sean Hannah and his colleagues suggest that courage is an “adaptive process” that requires an individual to summon both cognitive and affective resources. They have identified six interrelated factors that combust to produce courage. These are:

1.      Positive traits. Individuals may be born with a predisposition toward courage, based on their “openness to experience” (versus a risk-averse personality), their level of empathy, or their propensity for conscientiousness (e.g., stealing is always wrong).

2.      Positive emotions. Emotions can inspire us and fuel our courage – emotions such as anger and rage, fairness and love, embarrassment and disgust. 

3.      Goals and values. Our identity and the roles we assume are critical to the production of courage. Everyone takes on “role expectations” that exert psychological pressure on us to show fidelity to our self-formed identity and convictions. Our identity as a teacher, professional, parent, soldier, or friend fuels our determination to act in accordance with the core values at the heart of our identity. 

4.      Positive states. The belief “I can do it” (self-efficacy) makes a difference in the production of courage. So does the belief “I’ve done this before” (coping efficacy) and “We can do this” (collective efficacy). In short, researchers have long recognized how critical confidence is to producing courage. 

5.      Social forces. Courage is a positive contagion, especially when we hold and share with others certain normative beliefs (e.g., “never leave a comrade behind” or “friends don’t let friend drive drunk”). Role models are also critical to the production of courage, whether by sharing vital information (“here’s how you should talk to him”) or providing encouragement and support (“you acted with real courage today”). 

6.      Situation and context. Particular situations or contexts play a critical role in whether we demonstrate courage or not. In fact, research has shown that situation and context is the critical factor. There are certain situations when we can easily produce courage and other situations where courageous action is far more difficult. In these “difficult-to-produce-courage” situations we too often succumb to fear, peer pressure, groupthink, or obedience to authority. Indeed, all of us have been in situations where we become ethical mathematicians, weighing one set of values against another (e.g., loyalty to a friend versus being honest or weighing the possibility of losing a job or a friend). In sum, the research reminds us that courageous behavior is wholly dependent on the situation rather than stemming from a stable, inner core.

Research

Moral Courage 

My own research has focused on understanding moral courage, what is often called the courage of our convictions. Indeed, it is hard to conceive of moral courage without appropriating the “standing” metaphor. We stand on principle. We take a stand. Even Martin Luther boldly stated before the Holy Roman Emperor, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” This is the courage to speak truth to power, as well as the courage to follow the harder right than the easier wrong. Of course, some acts of moral courage risk much more than a cold shoulder from one’s peers or family. The courage to take a stand is often done alone, or at least just a few against the many. It’s a kind of courage that calls attention to oneself. 

There is another side of moral courage. This is the “courage to forgive” – the courage to turn the other cheek. It’s the story of a mother in Minneapolis, Mary Johnson, who forgave a young man of twenty who killed her 16-year-old son.  Her story was featured on CBS several years ago. She started visiting her son’s murderer while he was in prison. She then advocated for his parole and made arrangements for him to get a job where she works…and then, after a period of time, she made arrangements to have him live in the apartment next to hers. 

Nelson Mandela talked about the courage to forgive when he was released from prison. He told reporters that he still had anger for some of the guards (and especially one of the wardens) and yes, during the first weeks of his freedom, he felt the deep emotions of hate and revenge. But he repeatedly told reporters: “They had me for twenty-seven years. That is long enough. I don’t want them to have me for another twenty-seven. I have to find a way to let my anger go.”  

Developing Courageous Actions 

Is courage a learnable or teachable skill? Is courage like a muscle that gets stronger with exercise? If so, what would a “courage workout” look like? As a parent or educator, are there lessons we can glean from the military, especially the ways it trains soldiers to reduce the emotions that hinder physical courage?

Clearly, there is a need for more courage in the workplace. A recent National Business Ethics Survey reported that almost one out of two U.S. employees witnessed wrongdoing in their workplace. Half of them did not report the wrongdoing or take any action. The most common reason for not reporting was fear of retaliation. 

Bill Treasurer hit the mark when he suggests “we need to find ways to help move outside their comfort zone into their courage zone.” I believe it is possible to train everyone to exhibit more courage. Listed below are four approaches for families, sports teams, schools, and workplaces to consider: 

  • Create “if-then” courage scripts. What would it take for schools and organizations to create simulations that provide real opportunities for students and employees to enact courage behaviors? Clearly, it will be difficult to engineer the requisite fear and danger, but the benefits of this approach is providing opportunities for students and employees to internalize (and normalize) the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral “scripts” that will enable them to act with courage.
  • Focus on identity rather than compliance. Schools and organizations need to get beyond a prevention-focused mindset. Constraining wrongdoing does not produce courageous action. Courage demands conviction, not compliance. We need to get beyond programs, policies, and penalties and find ways to inspire students to act in accordance with their core values or employees to act in accordance with the code of their profession. 
  • Provide opportunities for students and employees to know and leverage their “courage traits.” Each of us is born with certain character strengths that help to produce courage. Some of us may have high levels of empathy while others are highly conscientious. Parents, educators, and workplace leaders need to help our children, students, and employees discover and leverage their courage traits.
  • Emphasize the power of stories, role models, and exemplars. Researchers who ask employees to describe acts of courage where they work overwhelmingly tell a story about a colleague who acted with courage. Schools and organizations should actively disseminate and promote stories of courageous actions. Mentors should talk about the different courageous actions they’ve experienced with those whom they mentor. Courage stories have the potential to create “positive spirals” within a school or organization. 

Conclusion 

All of us can recite the most salient finding from the famous Milgram study: people have a deep propensity to obey authority. Yet what most people forget about the Milgram study is the fact that almost 40% of those who took part in the study stopped participating once they perceived the experiment had gone too far. These individuals were examples of positive deviance. They each took courageous action. 

Courage is about looking at ourselves in the mirror and asking: what kind of person do I want to be? Courage belongs to those of us who have something to lose, and who care (and care deeply) about losing it. Courage is a verb – it helps us get to where we want to go. And courage surely brings out the best in us.

Let’s set the bar high for our schools: courage in every classroom and hallway. For our workplaces let’s aspire to acts of courage in every cubicle. Our collective challenge is to inspire parents, educators, and organizational leaders to prize courage above all the other virtues. Here’s my vision: a future where our graduates don’t just have the “know-how” but also the “will-to.”

References

Hannah, S., Sweeney, P., & Lester, P. (2010). The courageous mind-set: A dynamic personality system approach to courage. In C. Pury & S. Lopez (Eds). The psychology of courage: Modern research on an ancient virtue. (pp. 125-148). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Kidder, R. (2005). Moral courage. New York: NY: Harper-Collins.

National Business Ethics Survey. (2013). Ethics and compliance initiative. Washington, DC.

Schwartz, A. (2017). Courage. In Koonce, R. (Ed). Developing leaders for positive organizing. Bingley, UK: Emerald Publishing.

Treasurer, B. (2008). Courage goes to work. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Arthur Schwartz

Arthur Schwartz

Dr. Schwartz is currently serving as Character.org President and CEO. He has recently retired as a professor of leadership studies and Founding Director of the Oskin Leadership Institute at Widener University. Before Widener he served as Senior Scholar for the United States Air Force Academy and worked fourteen years as a senior executive at the John Templeton Foundation. He recently wrote the lead article and served as editor for the volume Developing Ethical Leaders. Arthur received his doctorate from Harvard University.

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