“Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.” – Winston Churchill
After hearing an explosion, the soldier looked up to see the vehicle – carrying two of his comrades – in flames. Without thinking of his own safety, he races through enemy machinegun fire to the burning truck, and sees that one man is trapped inside. Reaching into the flames, he can feel his own skin burning. Ignoring the pain, the soldier pulls his buddy from the wreckage, administers first aid, saving his life.
This story isn’t a scene from a Hollywood movie, but is what actually happened in the hills of Afghanistan in September 2006. Staff Sergeant (SSG) Jude Voss risked his life to save Sergeant First Class Greg Stube. For his actions, SSG Voss received the Silver Star, the third highest award for valor.
Similar stories of battlefield courage have occurred throughout history. Most of us will never have the opportunity to display physical courage like SSG Voss. Even in wartime, most soldiers won’t face this situation.
Without these experiences, how do we know if we’ll be courageous if the moment arrives? What makes people like SSG Voss act like he did? What is courage?
Dictionary.com defines courage as “the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear”. The “without fear” qualifier isn’t correct. Many brave people have been afraid, but took action anyway. They just didn’t let their fear stop them. A better definition is “the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., despite fear”.
Understanding and appreciating the consequences of your actions separates courage from recklessness. A drunk starting a bar brawl isn’t courageous. A woman who dives into a submerged plane to rescue her daughter is.
A display of courage doesn’t have to be physical. It could be taking action despite the possible consequences to your relationships, your career, or your reputation. And those are the situations most of us will face in our lives.
The consequences must be significant and real. If a company launches a new product in an untested market, then management is taking a risk. But even if the product fails, most of the executives will still lead comfortable lives.
It’s different when a mid-level manager makes a decision to defend one of her employees, in the face of pressure from her boss to fire the person. Choosing to go against her senior manager could mean a loss of a pay raise, being passed over for promotion, or perhaps losing her job. Taking the correct action despite these risks is what makes the manager courageous.
We develop the ability to be courageous by being courageous. No, that isn’t a circular argument. It’s a reflection of how we improve our ability to do anything. You become a better writer through writing. You become a better runner by running. And you become a more courageous person by performing courageous acts.
It’s okay to start small, with actions that may be unnoticed by others. Maybe you offer a dissenting opinion at your manager’s staff meeting. Perhaps you speak up when someone else makes a racist comment. Or, you tell a friend with a drinking problem that they need to get help.
We may even suffer defeats when we try to do the right thing. Your manager may berate you in front of your co-workers. People may mock you for being “politically correct”. You may lose a friend who thinks their alcohol consumption isn’t your problem.
These setbacks shouldn’t deter you in your efforts. As Theodore Roosevelt said, the credit belongs to the one who “errs and comes short again and again.” The true failure comes from not trying, from not taking action – despite your fears.
These examples don’t require the same level of courage as pulling someone from a burning truck. But, they do require courage. And it’s by building on these small actions that we’re able to grow as a person. If we can’t take these small steps, then we’ll probably fail when faced with bigger challenges.
We may never have to risk our life for another. We may never have to risk our career by going against senior management. But we’ll probably be faced with challenges that will require some measure of courage. Take steps today to make sure you're ready for that moment.