In the recent article Failure – The Crucible of Success, what intrigued me most about the story of Riverdale Country School was not so much their recognition that CHARACTER traits (like courage) are better predictors of success than academic achievement, but their willingness to grapple with the question of whether character traits CAN BE TAUGHT?
When we at XLC engage adult learner groups on a discussion of what good leadership is, courage always makes the list. It seems we all want our bosses to have it – to stand up for us even when it is politically risky, to not be a “yes man”, or even to say no to a customer when there might be short-term financial consequences.
So, like in the case of Riverdale Country School, we too ask the question . . . can courage be taught? At this moment, we think the answer is mainly no. We all have to discover and develop our own leadership traits in our own way, and time. What we can do, however, is suggest or create experiences that put you in a place where you have to act courageously. And then we must leave you alone to reflect on what that felt like, and to process what you feel you got from the experience . . . deciding for yourself whether you will again engage in a courageous behavior when the circumstance dictates.
When we think of courage, it is easy to consider those confederate troops under Confederate General George Pickett who marched out over the open field at Gettysburg – into the face of a horrific Union artillery barrage. Or, to think about Ezell Blair, David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, and Franklin McCain, four college students who dared to sit at a segregated lunch counter at a Greensboro Woolworth’s, or the unnamed man who stood bravely, his only armor his shirtsleeves, before a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square.
Those were acts of courage – perhaps once-in-a-lifetime acts that happened due to the congruence of events in people’s lives. But for most of us life is filled with situations (much less dramatic than these prior examples) that call on us to act with courage.
So, if you are open, here is the exercise.
Begin by getting a small group of friends or co-workers to do this experiment with you. (Yes, it takes less courage this way. Baby steps.) Develop a list of 4-5 “random acts of courage” that you could all perform. It doesn’t really matter which ones you choose. The only criterion is that they need to push you outside of what you would consider your normal comfort zone. Here are some examples:
1) Thank a Stranger Who Provides a Menial Service. Go up to someone who impacts your life in a small way – maybe it is the person who cleans the restrooms at work, or the busboy at your favorite restaurant. Walk up to them, introduce yourself, and tell them how you appreciate what they do and how it makes a difference in your life. (I did this once with one of the custodial workers who was emptying trash in front of the building where my office is at Xavier. What happened was profound – maybe the subject of a future blog entry.)
2) Ask for Some Constructive Feedback. Feeling brave? Ask your friends, co-workers, or kids if they are willing to share 2-3 things they would recommend you could work on to make you a better person. (Remember not to get defensive and to sincerely thank them for the gift of their advice.)
3) Confront a Negative Person. Most of us know someone at work who is a strong negative influence on our team or ourselves. These are the folks who always have a bad attitude, complain, talk about others behind their backs, criticize the company, make others feel uncomfortable (telling off-color stories or engaging in other harassing actions), or are unreasonably cynical. Ask them for permission to provide some feedback and explain to them how detrimental you feel their behaviors are and that you wish they would consider making a change. (Be prepared to back off if the confrontation turns overly tense or angry.) The best scenario here is to speak up immediately after observing one of these behaviors.
4) Challenge Your Boss. If you are one of those people who sits politely (and silently) at a staff meeting listening while your boss proposes ideas you think are stupid or wrong, consider challenging him or her. Remember to be respectful and focus your conversation on the ideas being discussed rather than on the person speaking. Consider carefully whether to challenge your boss in public or later behind closed doors.
5) Ride a Roller Coaster. This is one of my irrational fears – as I am terrified of heights. I can remember vividly riding these with my kids, and hating every millisecond of it – but I did it so that they wouldn’t see me as a wuss. Man wasn’t meant to fly at 2 G’s upside down with their feet dangling. Really.
6) Put a Live Lobster Into a Pot. Yup, this is another one of my nightmare scenarios. Pick up a live, gross, wiggling, prehistoric creature in your bare hands (no gloves allowed) and plunge their evil heads into a pot of boiling water! (I still get the creeps watching this classic Woody Allen scene from Annie Hall — just click on the picture)
Whichever ones you choose, make sure they test and stretch you in some way to face something that normally produces anxiety for you. They don’t need to be extreme, and certainly don’t do something unsafe.
After you and your colleagues complete these acts, allocate some time to sit down together and talk about the experiences. What were they like? What happened? Was it what you had expected before you began? How did they make you feel? Would you be likely to try them again in the future? (Why or why not?) What did these reveal about you? What did you learn about yourself, etc.
If you choose to try this exercise, let us know how it went.