If you Google “organizational courage,” you'll find fewer than 800 hits. Given that the same Google search engine yields more than 55 million hits for Britney Spears, it appears that “pop” culture is much more popular than corporate culture.
But since most of us will never perform on stage, and almost all of us will spend our adult lives in organizations, I would argue that organizational courage is a much more important topic, worthy of a few million more hits.
Webster's defines courage as the “… the quality of mind and spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, and pain without fear.” In many traditions throughout the world, courage often conjures thoughts of the brave and fearless warrior rising to a challenge without regard for personal safety. And, he usually saves a community and rescues a beautiful princess along the way.
While this view of courage is entertaining (and if you're George Lucas, creator of “Star Wars,” very lucrative) it is inaccurate. The absence of fear is not possible, or even desirable. Fear is a powerful, if not the most powerful, human emotion.
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Romantics argue that love transcends all other emotions, including fear. Cynics counter that love is actually the fear of separation manifested in a different way. Regardless of your personal view, we can all agree that fear, especially the fear of being alone, is a powerful emotion and a natural part of the human condition. And it is this fear of separation that often inhibits our efforts to act courageously in organizations.
In a recent Time magazine cover story, Nelson Mandela laid out his principles of leadership. His first principle deals with courage – and he defines courage not as the absence of fear, but as “the triumph over it.” Fear is always present, but courageous individuals control their fear and act independently of it.
So what about organizational courage? Courageous behavior starts with acknowledging and examining the source of our own fear. It is within this examination and our acknowledgement that we can free ourselves from the paralysis that accompanies fear and prevents courageous behavior.
And organizational courage is not just manifested by taking a risk, speaking out, or challenging others. Courageous behavior also emerges when we listen to others, admit our mistakes, and praise our co-workers and colleagues.
If we are willing to acknowledge and manage our fear, we can act courageously and with authenticity. We can speak out when appropriate, admit our mistakes, take a risk, and listen to others. And while we may not always win the day when acting courageously, we will have certainly lived that day. And according to Mandela, therein lies our victory.
William L. Sparks, Ph.D., is the director of the graduate program in organizational development at the McColl School of Business at Queens University of Charlotte.