Courage is less of an innate character strength than it is a skill; an individual can intentionally develop courage when the right skills are in place. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”
Erica Dawson, Professor of Practice at the Cornell College of Business, recently gave a Cornell Keynote examining courage and fear, and how to put both into perspective.
Courage is defined as having four components, Dawson explains. First, an action needs an uncertain outcome; if we knew how something was going to work out, it wouldn’t require courage. Second, the person must be fearful, which relates to the third component, the presence of a perceived or real risk. The fourth and final component is that the individual perceiving a risk and feeling fear where the outcome is uncertain, then takes action. This, Dawson says, is courage.
However, she cautions, courage does not mean leaping blindly. Taking calculated risks, gathering information to use in decision-making, and monitoring the downside are all important steps. If a person takes these steps and still cannot fully manage or control the outcome, the element of courage is required. Having courage is taking action when the stakes are high and the result uncertain.
Courage can further be categorized into three different forms: physical, psychological, and moral. Physical courage includes a physical act, such as rescuing someone from a fire or entering a situation perceived as dangerous. Psychological courage is an act that includes a psychological risk, wherein one admits to a mistake or risks making others comfortable. Moral courage is the ability to do the right thing and stand up for personal values, even if it comes at a cost. Most often, Dawson finds that individuals need to draw on psychological and moral courage.
One way she advises us to conquer fear and further develop courage is to identify the fear, which can enable an individual to recognize the irrational aspects and manage the rational ones. The act of stopping to take a deeper look at an immediate emotion, in order to get to the root causes of it, can help.
Dawson gives the example of learning to skydive: “I attended classes, and I did a progression of jumps to get my license. Debilitating fear then set in. I created my own failure through fear.”
Dawson explains she identified the rational fear associated with the risks of skydiving, and took time to consider the fact that she trusted herself, her equipment and her teachers. “And then, this thing I had feared switched to a joy.”