How to find and practice courage


Executive Summary

Leadership expert, coach and psychologist Manfred Kets de Vries explains that what makes a person brave is a combination of genetic predisposition, acquired psychological characteristics, social norms and the context of the decision that requires courage. He argues that courageous behavior, in which the person chooses a course of action that involves accepting the risk to protect or benefit others, is learnable and offers a series of techniques that he has found effective in helping people find their value.

Brendon Thorne / Getty Images

We have made our coronavirus coverage free for all readers. To receive all of the HBR content in your inbox, subscribe to the Daily Alert newsletter.

One of my former students, the CEO of a large and diversified industrial company, recently sent me an email saying that he believed “the pandemic was the time to show the people at the company that management really cared.”

So, he told me, that despite serious financial implications and opposition from some of his key shareholders, he had made the decision not to give up on anyone and had asked his top executives to cut wages in return. for shares that the company would buy back at a later date than the issue price. In addition, he had offered credit to all his troubled providers and, with the help of his senior team, also arranged an airlift of personal protective equipment for hospitals located near the company’s main facilities. He was very proud of the fact that within a few days the top executive team, supported by other company employees, had successfully raised a substantial amount of money for that purpose.

He admitted that at the beginning of the crisis he had “put himself on a quite different path”, but that he managed “to find the courage to do the right thing”. The email ended by saying that “the response of my people due to these actions has been humiliating.”

Further reading

I was touched by this note. Here, there was a relatively shy and anxious enough CEO who had been brave enough to take action that several of his shareholders disagreed with. He had clearly thought carefully about what it would be like to do the right thing in the circumstances, and had found the courage to act on his conclusions in the face of opposition and difficulties.

But what was it that made him brave? Was he always brave or did he learn to be? This is not an easy question to answer, because courage, like personality, is a product of both nature and upbringing, both of the individual and of their society, both of the person and the situation.

From nature to nurture

Nature certainly plays a role in determining who has courage. Neuroscience research shows that some people have an emotion-seeking or “Type T” personality. The brain structures of these sensation-seeking people appear to be somewhat different from the brain structures of people who avoid risk. The regions of the brain that determined decision-making and self-control had a thinner cortex, the wrinkled outer layer of the brain, or “gray matter.”

T-type individuals may have fewer dopamine receptors in their brains to register feelings of pleasure and satisfaction, and as such may require higher levels of stimulant and endorphin activity to feel good. Your increased testosterone level, a hormone that seems to correlate with uninhibited behavior, can also lead to a more risk-oriented lifestyle. A neurological architecture predisposed to take risks, combined with a solid set of values ​​that determine what they perceive as right or wrong, could make it more likely, when the situation requires it, that the Ts Type act bravely.

But even if some people may be genetically predisposed than others to have a greater capacity to take risks, that does not mean that they will necessarily show more courage. Along with Stanley Rachman, author of a classic book on the subject, I believe that non-biological factors, specifically a person’s psychological makeup, values, and beliefs, along with conditioning early role models, can compel us to act. at risk. ourselves in the interest of protecting other people. Your brain chemistry could make you smarter than my grandfather would have been to bungee jump, but would it have made you smarter to shelter Jewish refugees as he did, living in German-occupied Holland during the Second World War?

From the individual to the context

There is a lot of research linking the ability to act bravely (or otherwise) with measurable and controllable personal traits. For starters, there is our level of what Albert Bandura has called self-efficacy, the confidence that we have in our own capacity to face the challenges that lie ahead. The belief that “we can do it” will make a difference when the time comes for courageous action. There is also our self esteem, a more familiar and at least partly learned psychological factor, that may also affect our assessment of our ability to successfully overcome challenging and risky tasks, as well as the presence of anxiety. The degree of Open to experience, one of the five dimensions in the Big Five personality trait theory, may also be a factor: People who possess this quality may be more likely to act in times of crisis. All of these characteristics can be developed and formed with practice and help. Low self-esteem and anxiety, for example, can be worked through therapy. And much can be done to develop greater openness to experience.

Of course, the environment and context in which you are operating will also make a difference. However, like biology, the environment is more difficult to work with. It is always easier to act if what you do reflects shared normative beliefs about what we consider to be right or wrong. That was certainly the case with my grandfather. The invaders in Holland were not exactly well received, and it was likely that the Jewish refugee shelter had been considered by my grandfather’s social group as an act of defiance to be praised. It is doubtful that he would have received social support if he had intervened to save a German from being assaulted by a multitude of Dutchmen bent on revenge. This shows that there are situations in which we can easily produce courage and others in which we cannot. Too often, in these “hard to produce courage” situations, we succumb to fear, peer pressure, group thinking, or deference to authority figures.

Learning through practice

Perhaps the best way to think of courage is to treat it like a muscle. Some people are born with better muscles than others, but everyone can improve their muscles through training and practice. My former student, for example, told me that he had learned that he needed to address his relatively low self-esteem and anxiety, thanks in part to the support of his fellow CEOs in the leadership course he had attended. What also helped him was good advice: a supportive partner and several good friends who encouraged him to take these courageous steps.

During the more than 50 years that I have practiced as a psychoanalyst, psychotherapist, and executive coach, I have found the following techniques especially helpful in helping my patients and students find and practice their courage:

  • Create scenarios: I ask people to imagine the worst that could happen to them if they take a certain action and what the result would be if they did not act. By identifying the risks they are taking, people can develop immunity to their fears.
  • Recognize the negativity bias: Many people are prone to pay more attention to negative results than to positive ones. By making people aware of the research on this, you can help them correct bias. You should also make sure that they spend as much time considering the positive as the negative scenarios. And when you consider negative scenarios, try to rephrase what may seem like dangerous situations in a more constructive way.
  • Talk about fear below: People who are afraid to act often have little or no self-confidence, and this lack of confidence manifests itself in many ways: through procrastination, perfectionism, impostor syndrome, and so on. Opening up about self-doubt, exposing one’s vulnerabilities can have a positive empowering effect. By identifying what we really fear, we reduce our fear of the situation, giving us the courage to act. We can also benefit from observing the experience of other people who have conquered their fears.
  • Practice getting out of your comfort zone: Conscious and constant practice of small acts of courage can have a cumulative effect. For example, I suggest that people try to speak when they think something is wrong in their daily lives. Challenging yourself to stand up for seemingly small things can strengthen your habit of making truly difficult and courageous decisions.
  • Manage your body: Fear physically exhausts, and these physical effects aggravate the mental. Anyone who has to act in stressful times should make sure they face the challenge in good physical shape. In a crisis, therefore, be sure to take time to eat well, exercise, and sleep. I have also found that various relaxation techniques, such as meditation or yoga, can be very helpful in creating the clarity of mind necessary for courageous action.
  • Recognize that you are not alone: Having people with whom you have freely shared your fears, and who have shared theirs with you, can be a valuable resource when faced with a challenge to your courage. They don’t always have to be people you know deeply: my student told me that he drew strength from the other participants in our seminar, people he had never met before. In some ways, fear can be like an addiction, and the support of people in the same boat as you can help you overcome it.

The more we can face our fears, the more we will replace fear-based responses with courageous responses. But it is not just a fight with the enemy within. Because as we fight our fear, we will find ourselves acting in ways that make us feel more alive. To quote the philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson: “He who does not overcome fear every day has not learned the secret of life.”

If our free content helps you meet these challenges, consider subscribing to HBR. A subscription purchase is the best way to support the creation of these resources.