Courage is based on choice. Where someone doesn’t have a ‘choice’ they cannot be courageous. When someone does have a choice, no matter how unpalatable those choices might be, they can be courageous.
If courage is based on choice, the starting point for any potential courageous action is understanding your options and the consequences of them.
One of the hardest conversations I often have with people is to help them recognise their choices. How often do we all say to ourselves “I have no choice because I’ll lose my job”, “I’ll be in trouble if I don’t” or “I can’t afford not to”. Whilst recognising the truth of these concerns, simply articulating them highlights that we do have choice and making them has potential consequences.
The second stage of this conversation is to help people recognise the consequences of making the choice to do what is expected of them – in other words, to not be courageous. While there are obvious short-term consequences – no change in the status quo – it often doesn’t take them long to realise that there are longer-term consequences to the way they feel about themselves and the situation that they are in. These more subtle consequences are often negative – they don’t feel good about themselves, they become less caring about the organization, their boss and co-workers, they see their job simply as a ‘means to an end’. When faced with both the good and bad of doing nothing, doing the unexpected suddenly doesn’t seem quite so scary.
At no stage would I ever say to somebody that doing what’s expected of them is not courageous. Some of the most courageous people I have ever met actually continued to do what was expected of them. However, rather than simply accept the status quo, they became courageous because they accepted the risks and made the choice to work on changing the situation from inside their organization.
I have spoken many times of the importance of understanding the true risks of your potential courageous decisions. As human beings, we have a tendency to overstate the downsides and underestimate the upsides of any action where that action is not seen as the ‘norm’. Recognising our choices is a key first step to evaluating dispassionately the potential consequences of each option, before thinking about potential tactics.