May 2009 Ghundey Ghar, Afghanistan. Crédit photo : Cplc Jonathan Johansen.

May 2009 Ghundey Ghar, Afghanistan. Picture credit Mcpl Jonathan Johansen.

Origin : [spirit] from classical Latin [cur], meaning [heart] 1. the attitude of facing and dealing with anything recognized as dangerous,
difficult, or painful, instead of withdrawing from it;
2. quality of being fearless or brave;
3. valour;
4. the courage to do what one thinks is right

During my late-teenage years, my view on courage was deeply influenced by the movies I used to watch on the big screen. A blazing kind of courage portrayed by actors with bulging muscles – the very incarnation of power. The kind of show that hits you in the gut!

Back in 2009, when I was in Afghanistan leading a team of 50 soldiers whose mission was to disrupt the insurgency, I had the opportunity to see and experience that kind of courage quite often, if not on a daily basis. A combat engineer (read bomb squad operator) moving forward, metal detectors in hand, through a mine field to clear a safe path for his teammates is an example of that. An infanteer that gets an Afghan woman out of a combat zone under fire is another example.

Back then, given the context, that very physical – blazing! – kind of courage was somewhat frequent and was the golden standard that I was aspiring to emulate. However, back home, I had to ask myself : can courage be expressed on a day-to-day basis in a more traditional context?

My experiences as a leader of soldiers, an athlete, a keynote speaker or even as a significant other and a father tends to demonstrate that courage on a daily basis is not only the physical act of a hero, but can also be the moral courage that allows us to move forward in order to accomplish our missions overcoming, our fears.

Moral courage is the most valuable and usually the most absent characteristic in men.

General George S. Patton

Moral courage is the value that gives the momentum to an action when facing doubt or fear with regard to the consequences of the said action. As opposed to the physical courage that expresses itself quite often as the result of a learned or acquired reflex, moral courage requires a questioning and thinking phase. Thus, moral courage is in my own humble experience much more difficult to express because it is deeply rooted in a deliberate thinking process as opposed to a quasi-automatism reaction.

That being said those two types of courage obey to the same fundamental rules – their difference being in accordance with their context. Based on my experience, two elements are necessary for courage to be enabled :

The confidence that we have the competencies and/or that the courageous action has some
chances to end up having positive consequences for us or for our environment. Without that conviction, the courageous action makes no sense and is doomed to be a useless sacrifice. For example, a professional who feels threatened by an abusive boss needs to believe that a denunciation will be received in a responsible and respectful manner by her organization in order to move forward with that courageous intent. An athlete that gives his input on how to make his sport federation more efficient needs to trust not only his knowledge and experience but also that his insights will be received with an open mind by the federation’s leaders.

The second element is that the courageous action needs to be aligned with our individual mission, intentions and convictions or, in the context of managerial courage, the mission, vision and values of our organization. If not, the action might be reckless or even unwise, but in no way courageous. In the business world, that last notion gives the scope of managerial courage – it must be aligned with the tactical, operational and strategic aims of the organization.

Let me be clearer on that last notion : with regards to my modest experience, managerial courage should be defined by : to do what must be done in order to accomplish the organization’s mission. That simple definition brings forward lots of questions that must be answered in order to give room to the expression of managerial courage by every member of an organization :

What is the mission – but also the vision, values and convictions – of my organization?
What are the conditions that will enable us to declare “victory!”?
What is my personal mission as an individual within that organization? Is it aligned with the organization’s mission?
How much professional freedom do I have?

If we are facing in the right direction, all we have to do is keep on walking.

Buddhist proverb

As we’ve seen, the clarity level of every team member on those questions will influence their capacity to act in a courageous way. It is that clarity level on the individuals raison d’etre and that of the organization that allows a leader in a combat situation – i.e. an extremely chaotic environment – to use initiatives that will allow him to counteract the plan of the opposing force while, at the same time, contributing to the general plan up to the strategic level.

No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.

Field-marshal Helmuth von Moltke

After all, and quite frankly, the lifespan of a carefully designed plan is only equal to the reaction time of the opposing force. Ultimately, as soon as external forces, upon which we have very little control, start to mess with our plans, those soon become fuzzy and blurry at best. What remains after that initial contact with reality is the clarity level of the operator regarding the mission and its intents. And it is that clarity level that will enable – empower – those team members to act in a courageous way.

An organization that makes sure that its team members not only know but understand its mission and their roles will not only facilitate the expression of managerial courage but also the development of an esprit de corps amongst them.

A truly powerful performance enabler, don’t you think?