We may not often think of courage in the context of work. Unless we’re a firefighter, or a soldier, or maybe a high school teacher in a tough inner city district, why would we need courage? Sure, we might be nervous about giving a presentation, or asking for a pay rise, or taking on a new role, but surely the penalty will only be that we embarrass ourselves, or screw up our next promotion. Or at the very, very worst we get fired, but nobody will die.

If risk is an essential component of courage, are work-related risks substantial enough for us to count this as courageous behaviour? Of course, losing a job can be catastrophic, especially if there is rent to pay and mouths to feed, but still, does courage in the workplace really count as courage?

Average life vs courageous lifeMy answer would be that this course is about crafting a courageous life, on the premise that to live courageously creates a very different life trajectory from living averagely. And if we work, say, 34 hours a week for 48 weeks of the year for 40 years of our lives, that’s over 65,000 hours during which we can pursue our most courageous life… or not.

While the phrase “work/life balance” might imply that we park our “life” at the office door while we go to “work”, I’d like to suggest that work should be a part of our life, and our life a part of our work. Work has the capacity to present us with challenges and moral dilemmas that will test our courage in all kinds of ways, and it would be a tragedy to give up on those 65,000 hours as an opportunity to pursue our personal evolution.

Full slideshow on Slideshare

Podcast on YouTube


Managerial Cowardice

We have probably all witnessed managerial cowardice – the boss who is nowhere to be found when the going gets tough, who is willing to throw his/her team under the bus rather than take responsibility, who won’t listen to opposing views, who doesn’t deal with the bad apple in the team, who can’t handle failure, who will adapt the truth to serve their own self-interest. Ringing any bells?

Let’s look at some statistics. According to this Gallup data, employees who work for engaged managers are 59% more likely to be engaged in what they do.




And overall, only 13% of employees worldwide are engaged in their jobs.


thirteen percent


I can’t quite do the math, but that would seem to imply that there are a heck of a lot of disengaged managers, leading a lot of disengaged staff.


And a disengaged manager won’t be courageous, because on my assumption that:


When motivation > fear => courage


And assuming that engagement is necessary for motivation,


Then if you have no engagement, you have no motivation, and hence no courage.


(I can already sense outraged philosophers revving up to correct my fallacious logic, but to me this seems to make intuitive sense.)


And this all breaks my heart, because it adds up to an awful lot of human time, our most precious and irreplaceable resource, being wasted while we watch the clock and wait for our next pay cheque.



Managerial Courage


So how can we fix this? How can we get everybody to be switched on rather than tuned out?


Simon Sinek

Given my current inclination for seeing everything through the lens of dominant narratives, my suggestion would be that for engagement to filter through the company like a beneficial contagion, what the company needs is a uniting and inspiring narrative about why they do what they do. (See Simon Sinek’s TED talk classic: Start With Why. Also Barry Schwartz on The Way We Think About Work Is Broken.)


When our working life is about so much more than selling our time so we can pay the bills, it takes on a whole different complexion. We care. We’re willing to go the extra mile. We’re willing to be courageous.


(And some other ideas to promote engagement and courage: encourage diversity of opinions; listen; give discretion; don’t over-proceduralise; lead by courageous example; reduce hierarchy; acknowledge workers as human beings; trust and be trustworthy; overcome status quo bias in favour of fresh ideas and the pursuit of excellence; tolerate failure.)



Workplace Courage – Reactive


Courage at work often looks like a moral dilemma, and the moral dilemma often arises from a clash of identities. We bring a multiplicity of identities to bear on any decision, which can be simplified into four main ones:




When a question presents itself, tension can arise between these identities. For example:


A marine is part of a group that is sharing inappropriate photos of their female colleagues. Which wins: allegiance to the group or allegiance to the higher values of the Marine Corps? (true story)


Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden

A worker is troubled by what he deems to be breaches of personal privacy in the name of national security. Which wins: his self-identity which values privacy, or his loyalty to his employer? (Edward Snowden)


A journalist finds out that her promising young colleague has plagiarised an article. Which wins: adherence to the strict code of conduct amongst journalists that absolutely forbids plagiarism, or her relationship with her colleague?


Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as saying that one identity or another should always prevail. Every case will differ. But even seeing it as a question of clashing identities, and understanding which identities are involved, may help you to figure out where your loyalties lie.


And the good news is that, while people in the thick of a moral dilemma feel tension and confusion, there will come that moment when they know what they have to do. If they take the path of courage and do what they feel to be “right”, the research shows that even if negative consequences result, they will feel relief, pride and joy. If they don’t, do the right thing, they will feel shame, regret, and frustration. So the virtue of courage really is its own reward.




Proactive Courage


But overall the emphasis of this course is on proactive courage. Even when life is not presenting us with an “opportunity for growth” (aka a problem), how can we step up and be courageous in our work?


Going back to the premise that:


When motivation > fear => courage


… we have already looked at how we can increase our motivation. Another strategy would be to reduce our fear. In the Harvard Business Review, Kathleen Reardon suggests some ways to do this in her great article, Courage as a Skill:


courage calculation


I highly recommend the full article, but in brief:


Setting primary and secondary goals: what are your non-negotiables, what are your nice-to-haves, what outcomes do you want?

Determining the importance of achieving goals: are they worth going out on a limb for? What are you willing to sacrifice?

Tipping the balance of power in your favour: who can you approach in advance to get them onside? How can you positively influence the outcome?

Weighing risks against benefits: what will the impacts be, not just on you but on others? Is it worth it?

Selecting the proper time for action: do you have to act now, or can you hold your fire until a more advantageous time?

Developing contingency plans: what is your Plan B if Plan A fails? Plan C? Plan D?




Work is how many of us will find the opportunity to express our courage. Embrace work as a chance to push yourself outside your comfort zone.

Even if you don’t particularly care for your job of work, you can still use it as a way to grow. Look at Viktor Frankl, breaking rocks in the Auschwitz concentration camp. He still managed to find meaning in his experience. And if he can, we all can.





As usual, Vic and I have a chat about the topic of the week in our podcast.

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And reminder that the slideshow is here.









  • Thanks again for your continuing course on living a courageous life. I wish I’d had this course when I was in university (’66-’70). Most people who know me seem to think I’ve led a courageous and adventurous life. But, thinking back, I can see times when I could have been more effective and successful in what I wanted to do if I’d had the perspectives, ideas and tools from your course.

    Thanks again! Keep up the great work!

    • Thanks, Scot! So glad it’s resonating with you – very nice to get the feedback. And it’s never too late for new insights!

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