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How to Cultivate Courage

Saturday Spark #17

By Susan Hunt Stevens, Founder & CEO

I’m a big believer in the power of three. When something “pops” three times in a week, you should pay attention. This week, the word “courage” popped.

First, I watched Seth Moulton, a member of Congress and presidential candidate, do his CNN town hall. In response to a question about congressional inaction, he said that in his opinion, most people in Congress are intelligent. What they lack is courage to do what they know is the right thing, whether it’s on impeachment or climate change, if it flies in the face of what donors or party leadership want.

Then, I sat with senior leaders from ten of the world’s largest brands as we prepared to announce #BrandsforGood, a movement to inspire sustainable living. These leaders know their companies will face increased attention and potentially criticism for stepping out. It’s why Sustainable Brands refers to itself as a community for courageous optimists. But as Tim Andree, Executive Chairman and CEO of the Dentsu Aegis network said, “It’s clear that people want brands to help them live more sustainably. This means that there is a business case, as well as a moral case, for action…”

Finally, in conversation with one of the foremost leaders in corporate sustainability and energy, he noted how few companies have moved from encouraging sustainable action internally to developing strong climate policy advocacy. He hypothesized that active advocacy requires a level of corporate courage that companies struggle to rationalize, especially since the direct impacts of climate change are largely still perceived as shared risks, off in the future. Why risk backlash or consequences for advocacy today? 

I believe that one of the most critical skills for people, particularly leaders, at this time is what philosophers and psychologists call moral courage, or the willingness to take action for moral reasons despite the risk of adverse consequences. Is one just born with moral courage? Or can you develop and cultivate courage in yourself, your kids and others?

Kristen Renswick Moore has studied this question for nearly twenty years and has found that people with moral courage do tend to exhibit a few similar and distinct traits, First, they see themselves as bound to others via a common humanity. Where many see a stranger, they see a fellow human being. They also see themselves as inclusive and armed with a strong sense of agency compared to people who see themselves as members of exclusive groups and victims with little agency. 

Want to develop more compassion for humanity? Kristen Renswick Moore’s research found that it is possible to develop empathy for people outside your group, but it requires extensive time and exposure versus one-time interventions to drive change. Some of the best avenues for this are through travel and regular volunteer service.

A lot of the practical literature around developing moral courage comes from the Nursing field. Alex Wubbels, a Head Nurse of the University of Utah hospital burn unit, refused to let law enforcement draw blood from an unconscious suspected criminal without a warrant. In defending her patient’s rights, she was shoved, screamed at, and arrested, but stood her ground and was vindicated shortly thereafter. Many credit the Nurses Code of Ethics, practice and training in the pneumonic C.O.D.E., for increasing nurse’s capacity for moral courage. 

C: Courage: Is moral courage needed? Morally courageous people use objective information to determine whether a situation warrants it.

O: Obligations to honor: When caught in a moral dilemma, impose a purposeful time-out for reflection to help determine what is the right thing to do.

D: Danger management: Explore possible actions and consider adverse consequences associated with those actions. What do you need to handle your fear?

E: Expression: Aristotle believed we become courageous by practicing courageous acts. Education and practice help you know what action to take to maintain your integrity. 

How can you practice being courageous this week? Is there something that you haven’t done or said, at your organization, in your community, or in your family, for fear of the adverse consequences?  Take that situation and run it through the C.O.D.E. I’ll be right there with you.

Quote of the Week:  “There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger. The true courage is in facing danger when you are afraid.” — L.Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

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What is Saturday Spark:
As the leader of a purpose-driven company, I’m challenged daily to ensure our company is “walking the walk” and that I’m personally leading with purpose and impact at the forefront. The result is that I read, think, and learn a lot about the intersection of purpose, impact and leadership and have a few successes and a lot more “lessons learned.” I realized that my own insights may be helpful to other purpose-driven professionals if I took the time to reflect each week. If you find this inspiring, practical or helpful, I’d be honored if you shared it with your colleagues, your families and your friends.

Read Previous Week’s Spark: How to Lead in an Era of Employee Activism

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