100108-N-5212T-002Even if you’re not in the military – heck, even if you’re a pacifist – there’s a lot we can learn from looking at courage in the military context. Having encountered quite a lot of military folks during my years in the adventure world, I will say that they are among the most organised, clear-thinking, calm, impressive – and courageous – people I have met.

You could argue that it is the disciplined, tidy people who are most likely to be attracted to the military, rather than the military necessarily making them that way. Likely a bit of both. Either way, any organisation that can train its members to brave situations that are way beyond the imagination of us civilians (thank heavens) must have some interesting things to say about courage.

You can view the slideshow here, and the podcast is here. Syllabus here: GLBL252 Courage Syllabus


Warrior Courage


When I sat down to think about military courage, the first images that came to my mind were of the kind of courage that earns medals and accolades, such as in World War I – soldiers going over the top to face the enemy head-on, or enduring months at a time in miserable, wet trenches, surrounded by the decomposing body parts of their friends and colleagues.

Most soldiers were conscripted, rather than there by choice, and many were left permanently traumatised by what they had seen and done – but they endured none the less. (The threat of being shot for cowardice if they didn’t obey may have had some bearing on the matter.)

army_medalsMedals are awarded to encourage the kind of courage that armies need if they are to function effectively. Nobody knows what was actually going through the minds of those poor buggers, whether they were being subjectively courageous, but for the greater good of the military unit and hence the defence of the realm, that was the kind of bravery that was required. The lure of medals probably didn’t figure specifically in their calculations, but we all operate in cultures in which certain behaviours are admired and rewarded, while other behaviours are discouraged and punished, and we adjust our actions accordingly.

How does anybody cope with the brutal realities of war, and the very real physical danger? Rachman’s classic research in 1995 studied bomb disposal operators in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, working in Northern Ireland, and parachutists He was particularly interested in the role of training. He found that all the soldiers, regardless of their reported level of fear, were all able to carry out their duties quite competently after training.

courage greater than fearIn keeping with my general theory that we can act courageously when motivation > fear, he found that in the early stages of training people to carry out hazardous tasks, success is more likely if the person’s motivation is raised appropriately, and also that much of the training focused on decreasing subjective fear through raising competence.

You can probably relate to a situation where you were learning to do something that made you fearful in advance, but once you’d tried it once, you were elated at your own success and wanted to continue. If you haven’t experienced this feeling, please do – it is life-changing. But not with unexploded bombs… okay?! The point is that when we find the motivation to try something, and through continued trying we build our sense of competence, we are able to consistently perform scary actions with diminishing amounts of fear.


Military Leadership

War now is a very different matter than it used to be. In his TED Talk, General Stan McChrystal (one of my colleagues as a Senior Fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute) talks about his experience of 21st century warfare. In class, we watched and discussed the trailer from the movie The Eye in the Sky, in which the debate around a drone strike is conducted in government offices and military command rooms rather than in the heat of battle. Check out this interesting moral dilemma… and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts if you’d like to post a comment.

Hartley conducted research to find out what qualities military personnel most admired in their leaders – and the list is not so different from what we would hope to find in our managers, politicians, or even in parents:

  • Makes hard choices
  • Accepts responsibility
  • Does the right thing regardless of consequences to themselves
  • Displays honesty, integrity, and a personal code of ethics
  • Confronts risk without showing fear
  • Perseveres in face of difficulty
  • Leads from the front
  • Shows consistent courage in all aspects of life

We read an account (hagiography) of the legendary Field Marshall William J Slim who, despite the military context, seems to have been above all a superb people manager. Who wouldn’t want to work for a boss like this?

  • Power of vision of personal future: “Slim had become what he dreamt of becoming”
  • Ability to relate to people at all levels with respect and affection
  • Heart-based leadership, grounded in values
  • Proud sense of identity among his men as the “Forgotten Army”
  • Frequent praise for their accomplishments
  • Analytical approach to figuring out what his men needed in any given moment


Human Courage

The challenge can come when the courage of the human does not jibe well with how the military defines courage. What happens when a subordinate does not agree with the order from the superior? How do you balance military obedience against personal ethics?

This is how it works in the US military:

Military members disobey orders at their own risk – and could go to jail.

They also obey orders at their own risk.

An order to commit a crime is unlawful.

An order to perform a military duty, no matter how dangerous, is lawful, as long as it doesn’t involve the commission of a crime.

I asked a military friend of mine from the UK to offer her comments on courage. One of the stories she told was of a sergeant on deployment, a capable and disciplined man, who found the courage to reach out and admit he was suffering from PTSD and was becoming a danger to himself – and probably others. They were able to find him and help him. This is not the uber-disciplined, unflinching courage that we associate with the military, and certainly wouldn’t earn him any awards for gallantry, but courage comes in many guises.

On a personal level, I found the idea of Battlemind quite interesting.


I trust that not too many of you will ever find yourselves in a literal battle situation, but if we’re living a courageous life, there will inevitably be times of conflict when we need to step up our courage to a different level. There are concepts we can all take away from the Battlemind model, and be inspired by our brothers and sisters in arms to live a more courageous life.

And to adopt a core tenet of military training – the 7 Ps:

Perfect Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance

– so it’s never too soon (or too late) to start preparing your courage!


Podcast (another P)

YouTube           iTunes               RSS (Android users can enter the link into their podcast client and subscribe directly)

Apologies again for the sound quality on last week’s podcast. All technical glitches now resolved, and we are crystal clear this week!

A reminder that the slideshow is here.





  • o Roz
    roz, i wish that i could wholeheartedly agree with you about this particular topic, but after having read many informative books written by soldiers at various levels in our armed forces and also having seen some disturbing documentaries on the subject, i must question whether all their actions should be seen as being courageous. training in the military involves using force thru fear and a great portion of the active military succumbs to almost an eery sort of brainwashing in that respect. if one researches the psyche of those who enlist to “protect our country” , it often reveals a troubled childhood, low income or a sense of having no future so the military offers a sense of purpose, and /or an uninformed or rigid (military parents or de-sensitized experience) view of what war actually entails. yes, there are courageous actions in the military experience , however to glorify the wars that are continually perpetuated for financial profit and power and make it about courage, i believe, ignores the real reasons why someone chooses to participate. this is a complex subject and the psychology behind a soldier’s choice is not a simple question and answer issue. courage with compassion is the higher moral ground and we often do not see that in war. the high incidence of ptsd and drug and relationship issues that serving in the military brings home is a clear indication of the impact that serving in the military has.
    i want to thank you for having the courage to broach this subject, however i feel that the incidences of courage in the military are not as great as we might expect or desire.
    with love and light, kate

    • I totally understand your perspective, and thanks for taking the time to write.

      In every walk of life there will be troubled people, and in a walk of life that entails violence, I would guess this is more so.

      Although I have quite a number of (ex)military friends, I like them despite their military involvement, rather than because of it.

      Both stories are true – there are many courageous people in the military, and many who lack the moral and ethical standards that we would wish for. I chose to focus on what the average civilian can learn from the better kind of military person. Yes, my perspective is one-sided, but that was my intention.

      Thanks so much!

  • i will ! and hopefully others can provide additional perspective….. i wish that i could agree that war and serving in the military involve courage, however after having explored “the bigger picture” , i cannot.
    thank you for your response, tho.
    ps.. i do not hold anything against those who feel differently , just recognize that our human experience is often a challenging and varied one. we each have our reasons (and choices!) for being here….

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