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I received an email from a reader this week asking me such a simple yet powerful question that I delayed blogging to think about a suitable reply.

His question was…

“…how does one differentiate between courage and egoism? I think that sometimes what passes for courage is actually a form of egoism. I am not saying that that is necessarily bad, but in these cases I don't think the person had any sense that they were taking a risk … Or put it another way, we have all met people who always speak their mind. Are they being courageous?”

I don’t believe that ‘speaking your mind’ and having a high ego are the same thing as people can speak their mind about subjects other than themselves.  So to answer both questions;

1) Ego and courage are not the same thing.  People who focus on themselves and the sound of their own voice simply have a high ego but cannot be said to be courageous (or not).

2) Speaking up however can be sign of courage.  Although courage involves action (how many people are unable or unwilling to act on their own ideas?), identifying alternatives and expressing opinions is often a precursor to action.  Indeed, speaking out may actually be courageous if the individual recognises that such as opinion, if held persistently, could lead to physical or psychological harm e.g. in autocratic states.

However, it got me thinking about two related points;

• The perception of courage from an outsider’s viewpoint
• Developing courage so that people are able to act because their fears are no longer relevant.
Courage is essentially an individual act.  While outsiders may believe that they understand the risks that individuals may take when being courageous, they can never know the severity of such risks as such a judgement is based on that individual’s own experiences and views. 

For example, I meet with parents who turn down high profile promotions in favour of spending time with their family.  To their work colleagues they are being ‘courageous’, yet while they often acknowledge the benefits of such a promotion, they simply value their family ahead of those more ‘visible’ advantages.

So if courage is so based on the individual’s perception, how can we judge courage, let alone develop it?

There are three strands to answering this question;

1) Developing courage is initially about giving individuals the skills to make an informed choice.  We so often find that individuals, especially in the workplace, take the perceived ‘safe’ choice because the either don’t truly understand the risks of the alternatives, or think they have the skills to cope, or have the confidence of their convictions.

To support this personal development, the role of the organization is to create the culture with a clear sense of purpose and then implement mechanisms that encourage employees to speak out, to disagree, to help them make informed decisions and create constructive tension.

2) The concept of competencies, competency measurement and the relevance to the workplace have long been accepted by academics and practitioners alike.  Courage is a competency and like any competency, it is focused on the ‘how’ an individual behaves and not the ‘what’ is achieved.  While understanding the motivations that drive a competency can be difficult, we can however assess an individual’s behaviour over time and make reasonable assumptions about its source. 

In the context of courage in the workplace, behaviours such as giving opinions that differ from their manager and / or ‘accepted wisdom’, referring to greater principles or values, persistent behaviour in the face of opposition from colleagues and managers, trying new ways of working etc. are all behaviours that are associated with courage.

3) It is becoming possible to measure courage through psychometric tests.  While the use of psychometric tests such as ‘Insights’ and MBTI are very popular although statistically doubtful, many others have a much greater reliability and validity.  Researchers have also started to develop specific question sets for workplace courage which are currently being trialed.

Judging courage, whether by an individual’s actions or through understanding their motivations is possible.  Developing courage, both at a personal level and by creating the organizational context that encourages it to develop is also possible.  While ideally we would look to develop courage to the point that individuals see it as a way of life and therefore not ‘courageous’, in reality, the fluid nature of business relationships means that this is unlikely to ever be achieved.