In praise of: courage

Scroll down to the bottom if you prefer a narrated version of this blog

This blog is part of a series by ACEVO head of member support Tom Andrews. It’s a series about words. Not any old words, but words that exemplify human strengths. What are the characteristics that serve us as leaders and as people?

This is not intended to be a definitive list or a sermon, it is more of an exploration and celebration. It’s also something that I’d like to invite you to contribute to.

The seeds of this series have come from conversations with leaders and members of ACEVO, as well as my own interest and experience in this area. While conversations with members often focus on problems and challenges, there is also an acknowledgement of how our personal – and universal strengths – can support positive change. This blog is an exploration of some of these virtues.

Courage calls to courage everywhere.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett

Courage is the most important of the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.

Maya Angelou

Courage is found in unlikely places.

J.R.R. Tolkien


Courage is the choice and willingness to confront agony, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation. Physical courage is bravery in the face of physical pain, hardship, even death or threat of death, while moral courage is the ability to act rightly in the face of popular opposition, shame, scandal, discouragement, or personal loss.

The classical virtue of “fortitude” (andreia, fortitude) is also translated “courage”, but includes aspects of perseverance and patience. (Wikipedia)

“Who is willing to have their arm chopped off?” came the cry from the stage. It’s 1976, I am 6 years old. I am standing with some friends in the balcony of a village hall. It’s a pantomime and to my eyes the place is packed with hundreds of people. No-one moved, and then I did. I vaguely remember a debate in my head between ‘no way’ and ‘why not?’ and then I was stepping down the steps, through the audience, and up on stage to have my arm chopped off by a wicked witch.

It is now 1989, and one image is seared on my consciousness. An image of the most courageous act I have seen. As I watch on television, a single man, walks in front of a column of tanks. They stop. I am still awed by this act and even more so because it took place without the knowledge that anyone was watching.

Courage comes in many different forms, from the trivial to the heroic.

It is often associated with physical acts of valour, but maybe in our world of leading organisations, courage is more evident as moral bravery. This is related to fearing others’ opinions, looking foolish before peers, but still doing what we believe is right, despite the fear of the consequences. It can also be evident in psychological bravery, where people face their fears and anxiety on a day to day basis, often invisible to others. From the outside an act might seem very mundane but for that individual, for example having a conversation with a staff member or attending a board meeting, can require a willingness to deliberately step outside your comfort zone.

So how can we face this time of uncertainty with courage? Research suggests courage can be promoted by practice (developing a habit), by example (role models of prosocial behaviour), and by building our self-confidence as well as a sense of group cohesion and trust.

As is quoted above, courage is an enabler. When we are appalled by injustice, intolerance, and inequality, it is courage that makes something happen. And it is courage – in our roles as leaders – when we can say ‘no’ as well as ‘yes’, and to say ‘this is enough’.

Leaders’ perspectives

Dawnette Fessey, chief executive, Southend Carers

Over recent weeks, the word Courage has played fast and loose with me and my role as a CEO. Almost overnight the world went into lockdown, lock-in and lockout, I basked in the glow of feeling strong, determined and brave….the world was recognising the value of the Third Sector. There was a rush to create community services and an online digital boom. My team had settled into their new working from home routines and I was available to support their ups and downs. Adrenaline, ideas, courage and confusion came together like a Friday night cocktail. But like any rush, there’s always a comedown.

‘Overnight’, familiar routines to relieve the stress were gone…. no chats by the kettle, or pre/post meeting catch ups with sympathetic colleagues or even a moment of office banter to act as relief.  With these simple routines on pause, I began to realise how overwhelmed, exhausted and fragile I felt as a leader in my work isolation, and I wondered “who could I lean on through this crisis?”

That’s when I realised that courage is not me being a superhero with “keep calm and carry on” tattooed on my arm, but me being truthful to myself and realistic about my own vulnerability. 

So to cut a long story short, I spoke openly and honestly, to my board of trustees, letting them know about my own need for support and a friendly voice to be there for me over Zoom.  And now… each week I speak to a trustee about the ups and downs.

When I think a back on the fears I had before speaking up and speaking out, and how paralysing it can often be to think that I must be seen to be coping and a pillar of strength – I marvel at the courage it took for me to view courage through a different prism and speak my truth.

Rosie Ferguson, chief executive, House of St Barnabas

Courage for me is about doing what is right, not what is easy. Sometimes it can be easier as a leader to make the decision that gives the easiest short term option or that most pleases those around us. But the right decision for the long term impact of a charity is not always the best outcome for the current staff and beneficiaries. Courage is the willingness to confront the hard truths in front of us and voice honestly how we feel to those around us. Courage as a leader can also look like asking for help, when everyone is looking to you for the answers.

If I list the most courageous things I’ve ever done in a leadership context, it does not look like a list of fighting lions but a reflection on all the times I’ve aired a difficult truth: throwing a well-crafted budget up in the air and admitting you need to start from scratch, telling someone you need time off when you have lost perspective, closing a programme that is much loved by participants but not aligned with mission and confronting with compassion employees who find themselves in the wrong role for their skills.

Right now, running a hospitality social enterprise in the middle of the Coronavirus Pandemic, courage feels like determination to try, even when everything around you tells you it can’t work. And I genuinely believe it will get us through it.

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