We increasingly hear that companies want their leaders to display courage. But what is courage in the workplace? And can we develop it? By definition, courage is a willingness to take personal risk in the face of adversity, to engage despite awareness of risk to self.

Research professor, Brené Brown, proposes that courage involves a willingness to make ourselves vulnerable; to fully show up, take a stand and be seen or challenge the status quo. This also aligns with Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmondson and her research suggesting our behaviors are motivated by a fear of not fitting in, of not belonging, and being judged for our individual opinions and actions. No wonder courage is held in such high esteem. We are in awe of the brave; those who take a stand, speak out, or dive into action, despite feeling fear. So how can we build courage ourselves?

Courage and the brain

Let’s understand what’s going on in our brain when we are confronted with a stressful scenario. Fear is a form of strong negative arousal, processed in our ancient amygdale. Our prefrontal cortex then regulates our emotional responses. This all happens in a split second. When we experience negative arousal like stress or fear, depending on severity and circumstance, our brain works rapidly to determine an appropriate reaction: fight, flight, or freeze. Research suggests the decision to show courage (fight) recruits a very different brain circuitry than hiding (freeze) or running away (flight).

The courage switch

Dr. Andrew Huberman at the Harvard School of Medicine studied both mice and humans to understand the brain regions involved in displays of courage as opposed to fear. He found that a specific region deep inside the brain called the xiphoid nucleus, interacts with the prefrontal cortex, when courage is exhibited. This suggests that showing courage is in fact a decision, not a reaction. The xiphoid nucleus also connects to reward centres of the brain. This suggests that being courageous feels rewarding on an innate level

Making friends with courage

Clinical Professor of Leadership Development and Organizational Change, Manfred Kets de Vries suggests we think about courage like a muscle we are trying to strengthen, and that courage is in fact a perception or belief that we have the capacity to address a threat. He proposes we build courage in simple ways including:

  1. Think through the worst-case scenarios of addressing a particular challenge, to get more comfortable with taking a risk.
  2. Remember we are biologically programmed to focus on the negative. Being aware of this may help you, with effort, also come up with all the possible positive outcomes from addressing a challenge.
  3. Go outside your comfort zone: This can be in very small ways like speaking up more, visit new places, engage in a new activity, change your routine, learn something new. Choose courage over comfort.
  4. Improve your physical health. Feeling strong, fit and free of aches and pain improves energy and self-confidence and a sense of capability and readiness in challenging situations.
  5. Talk and share with others. Opening up about your fears, and hearing others’ perspectives and similar fears, creates a sense of not being alone.
  6. Start small: Identify practice opportunities: What are the situations and opportunities you regularly find yourself in, where you notice an opportunity to speak up, take a risk, defend someone else or challenge the status quo?

‘It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage,
to move in the opposite direction’

                                                                                                                                              Albert Einstein

In our next blog we will focus on the importance of movement, and the benefits of incorporating it into our daily digitized routines.

* ‘Salay, L. D., Ishiko, N., & Huberman, A. D. (2018). A midline thalamic circuit determines reactions to visual threat. Nature. doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0078-2
** Kets de Vries, M. ‘How to Find and Practice Courage’, HBR, May 12, 2020.
*** Einstein, A.,”Small is Beautiful”. The Radical Humanist, Vol. 37, No. 5, (p. 22), August 1973.