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The Meaning of Courage

In Challenging Coaching we talk about courageous goals. These are goals that create a feeling of excitement, inspiration, wonder, but also involve risk and fear. What is the basis of courage that enables a courageous goal and what are the implications to leadership and organisational development?

Early research stated that courage comprised the willingness to act when risk or danger was present, towards achieving a worthy aim. Another element was added into the mix, as courage was defined as the capacity to act despite the presence of stress and fear.

This certainly touches a chord with me. Over the years, I’ve witnessed friends undertake extreme activities, but fearlessly. For example, a friend who was a semi-professional motorcycle racer, whizzing around wet racetracks, cornering at such an angle that one knee scraped the ground. A friend who backpacked around the world for 6 months. Or a friend taking his twentieth skydiving jump. To them these experiences did not involve courage; it was their way of feeling alive. However, for me to undertake such ‘foolhardy’ things, I would need a lot of courage, as I would experience massive amounts of fear.

There are a number of types of courage that include:

  • Physical courage, the ability to act when there is the risk of physical harm.
  • Moral courage, when the threat is to ethical integrity, or maybe when there is the possibility of social disapproval.
  • Psychological courage, when facing personal fears or anxieties.

These are all based on an individual’s perception of risk and threat, and as a result are unique to each person. When discussing courageous goals whilst coaching or running seminars some people have said, “Oh my goal is not very courageous.” It is as if they feel the need to apologise for their goal. However, as this is such a personal thing, courage can be seen in the smallest of actions. No apology is needed. For some people, huge amounts of courage may be present to enable them to step outside their front door. Because of their perceived threat and risk, this may be more courageous than an astronaut on the 6-month mission to the international space centre.

Courage was examined on an organisational level by Kilmann, O’Hara and Strauss (2009) with a 2×2 matrix of “fear of performing potential acts of courage” from low to high on the vertical axis, and “observed frequency of potential acts of courage” from low to high on the horizontal axis. With this there are 4 types of organisation:

  • The courageous organisation (high fear and high observed acts): Although fear is present, members observe potential acts that are turned into actual acts of courage.
  • The fearful organisation (low observed courage, high levels of fear): members are overcome by fear and do not act.
  • The bureaucratic organisation (low observed acts of courage and low fear): no acts of courage are observed, despite the absence of threat, as members surrender to fear.
  • The quantum organisation (high observed acts, low fear): members observe potential acts of courage, but these are not real as there is no risk of harm.


It is interesting to consider the organisations you work with; where are they in this 2×2 model and what is the impact on individuals and organisational effectiveness?

Research has found that training and exposure to fearful situations may move a person on a type of continuum, from courage to fearlessness. Also, acts of courage are contagious, when observing others taking risks and succeeding, people can expand their beliefs about what it is possible to do. And so, as is often heard, keeping our dream a secret because we fear that it might not happen, denies the support that others can offer, but also prevents the virtuous cycle of contagious courage.

In Challenging Coaching, we describe a three stage process for setting a courageous goal; Dream, Share, Start. ‘Dream’ is the internal process of thinking optimistically about the possible outcome. ‘Share’ is communicating this bold vision to others, and ‘start’ is the first step along the journey.

What is the courageous act you will undertake this week? Post your comments on our LinkedIn Group.