Oddly, our culture has a habit of both over-romanticizing and overlooking courage at the same time.
Courage is romanticized by depictions of comic-book super hero characters and "Die Hard"-type bravado — all featuring extraordinary men in extraordinary circumstances.
And at the same time it is overlooked because courage is no longer understood to be the first of all virtues: the one that makes all others possible.
Indeed, although courage is foundational for leadership and positive psychology, it often remains ignored in the literature on both.
In a scientific or psychological sense, having courage is not a special trait reserved exclusively for heroes who are just “born with it.” In fact, what cognitive neuroscience tells us is that courage is a cognitive ability that can be strengthened or atrophied through neuroplasticity.
And that’s the good news: you can build and strengthen your courage through the right behaviors and exercises.
In its simplest form, courage is the willingness to act in the face of fear, uncertainty, and doubt.
So the core skills regarding courage are:
You can actively cultivate both skills.
Individuals who are willing to focus on and consistently perform the mental exercises unique to building courage can strengthen and improve these core skills.
And with both skills - the willingness to act and the ability to manage fear - improvement comes from reframing one’s internal story and mindset.
Managing fear usually means an honest confrontation with the source of that fear, followed by a mental reframing of its meaning.
In modern life, most fear doesn't come from real survival threats like a charging mastodon or pouncing tiger. We don't usually fear sudden death from animal attack, instead we fear failure, uncertainty, risk, losing face, and being vulnerable.
But few of us are 100% honest with ourselves about these kinds of fears. So our fear-based behavior wears a mask, and it takes conscious reflection to recognize our “face of fear” behavior patterns.
And that's the difference between ordinary people and a fearless leader -- the fearless leader does the work to recognize her fear-based patterns, and then re-frames her fear-based thoughts to re-boot her mindset and remind herself of her own resilience in the face of failure and setbacks.
Because reacting to fear or allowing it to control us isn't automatic. We can consciously choose to stay emotionally present and mindful during uncomfortable confrontations.
When we do this, we can more consistently operate from our highest values and consciousness rather than our lower instincts.
The bottom line: When you repeatedly confront and face down your fears, you destroy their influence on you, and that’s how you strengthen your courage "muscle."
The neurology of courage involves a competition between your amygdala, which drives fear, (along with your fight or flight response) and your subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC), which acts to suppress bodily fear responses.
Neurologically, conscious activation of your sgACC can actually suppress and shut down your (otherwise-involuntary) amygdala response.
So the idea of voluntarily acting in the face of fear isn't just a poetic description, it’s a scientific reality.
And what helps you “voluntarily act”? Four things:
The ability to clearly picture your actions and the positive results that will come from them increases your ability to act. If you don’t know what to do, it becomes a lot harder to do it, which is one reason why uncertainty can be more paralyzing than concrete fears. Focusing on what you need to do in the moment can have magical results on your ability to act.
Focusing on the meaning of your actions — "why" you are doing what you're doing. If parents routinely display courage for the sake of their children, one reason is that their “why” for acting is concretely in front of them; they know they’re doing it for their kids’ sake. So focus on why. After all meaning and happiness are key principles behind Positive Psychology for a reason.
Embrace the courage to fail. If you believe that daring greatly is honorable in itself — that the brave man who fails is still brave — you greatly increase your ability to act. This is one reason why The Courage to Fail (in order to succeed), is a key element of the Fearless Leaders Coaching Model.
Strengthen your pattern of bravery. We've all had moments of bravery in our life. Routinely recalling and re-living those moments activates and strengthens our neural patterns associated with bravery and helps us to begin seeing ourselves as brave. Once you begin identifying with being brave, you become much more likely to act in ways that conform to that self-image. You'll have a new “reason-why” for your actions and a new neural pattern to tap into when acting in the face of fear. And you can find several fearless leaders exercises that'll help you engage in this kind of neural strengthening in our Tools section.
This means that they understand courage and how to act in the face of fear from every angle -- including the life-threatening / hero-saves-the-day kind as well as the "if we don't pull this off we're out of a job" kind.
So if you're looking to strengthen your courage and boost your ability to lead fearlessly, the best place to start is with a Fearless Leaders Group Engagement.
And for more of a baby step, we recommend you take our What Kind of Fearless Leaders Are You? Quiz.
Everyone manifests courage according to their innate leadership and decision-making styles, and finding out yours can accelerate your path to becoming Fearless.