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This last week has seen the word 'courage' used more often in the popular press than I have seen it used in the last five years of being involved in the ‘courageous’ field.  Although the word was used to express the shock that many people felt regarding the decision of the Pontiff to resign, was his decision truly courageous?

Courage is used to describe someone who deliberately does (or doesn’t) act when they know that the consequences of their action (or non-action) could harm or damage them.  Social courage is used to distinguish actions which could bring psychological damage e.g. rejection from the social group, as opposed to physical courage which refers to the potential of physical harm.  While courage is often used to describe someone who actions are based on a set of deeper beliefs or principles rather than someone who simply acts for their own self interests, in reality it is never that easy to separate one from the other.

Without any doubt, the decision to resign was a conscious act and demonstrates a man with a strong sense of integrity and commitment to the Catholic Church. 

From an outsider’s point of view, being the first Pope to resign in nearly 600 years and arguably the first to do so voluntarily in over 700 years does look courageous.  Although not risking any physical harm, the uncertainty of how the he might be treated, what others might think of his actions and of him as a person would lead the outsider to believe this was an significant act of psychological courage.

While no one can truly judge another individual’s actions as courageous or not, what is beginning to emerge are some of the tactics that the Pope used to act 'courageously'.

Understand the True Risks

In our experience, people in an organisational setting frequently over estimate the risks of their potential actions and rarely quantify how those risks might affect them and their family.  For instance, it has emerged that the Pope had been discussing the act of resigning with his closest advisors for some months – in other words he sort different perspectives.  Those long months of discussions would surely have covered every aspect from the legality of the action, to the reaction of the wider Church and the practicalities of post resignation living. 


Linked to understanding the true risk is the power of reflection.  The Pontiff talked of having 'repeatedly examined my conscience' and while reflection does not change the risks of an action, for many people they bring an opportunity to ensure that they truly understand the situation, the risks and the options before taking action.

Know your own values

In his resignation statement, the Pope referenced his strengths and in particular, how he would be unable to adequately fulfil his role.  For many people, courage comes from drawing on a deeper sense of who they are and what is important to them.  It is no surprise that many of those who we perceive to be courageous draw on a strong spiritual connection and that their courageous actions (or non-actions) were in keeping with those vales or principles.

Link to Strategic Needs

In addition, the Pope referred to the deeper strategic needs of the Catholic Church.  By putting his own personal wishes to one side and linking the action to the strategic needs of the organisation, the Pope has gained the respect of those within the Catholic Church and those in the wider community. 

Act Tactically

Finally, in resigning when he did, the Pope demonstrated his awareness of the tactical needs of the organisation.  By giving Cardinals enough but not excessive time to elect a successor before the critical Easter period, the Pontiff has minimised potential conflict that might otherwise have arisen if Cardinals had had more time to reflect on this unexpected news.

While there are a number of other tactics that individuals can use to help them act courageously, the Pope's resignation is a wonderful example of you too can become more courageous in your everyday life.