• Sometimes courage means taking action; sometimes the most courageous thing we can do is stop and slow down

  • Drew Povey explores the virtue of courage and how you can foster it in your life

  • We have coaches available to help you take the next step in your life – find them here

For me, courage is the catalyst for most things. It’s a spark and a driving force. It’s what makes things happen. It’s a doer, a maker, a mover, and a shaker. I believe it’s what we must use to get us through what is trying to knock us back.

The more I looked at the word ‘courage’, the more it needed unpicking. What is it? What does it enable you to do? And how do you find it when things go wrong?

I have written about and talked to lots of people about courage over the past ten years and if you ask anyone whether they think courage is important, most will answer ‘yes’ pretty quickly. In any context of life, whether in leadership of a company, of a school, of a sports team, of your own life, courage is important. There will be times in your life when the clouds come and you’re going to have to be courageous.

Perhaps, too, there have been times in your life when it was going really well, and you also needed to be courageous. If we are safe in our comfort zones, it is courage that helps us embrace the new or find the next challenge. Courage helps us move forward and can be the catalyst in times that are both positive and negative.

Simply put, courage is the magic that allows you to go outside of your comfort zone into that stretch zone and start to learn and grow. As Maya Angelou says, courage is fundamental to probably every other virtue. Because without courage, what else have you got? Change doesn’t happen. You aren’t able to be resilient when the clouds come. Without courage, in small and big ways, you don’t move. You simply don’t do anything.

Combining resilience and courage allows you to do one thing we can all do when we’re feeling alone – we can listen. You’ve probably been punched out of your comfort zone and it’s tempting to run back into that place of safety but take advantage of the moment. You don’t have to crawl back into your armchair or hide in the life you already have because that will inevitably lead to the same problems recurring again and again.

That’s why it’s important to listen. It does require some bravery to jump up and run headlong back into the life that knocked you down, but it’s even more courageous to pause and consider what is happening. It shows resilience and courage to pause, think and listen to what is around. Simply standing up, taking a breath, thinking about things, starting to make a move forward, looking around for people to work with. It makes everything easier. It’s not so abrupt. It doesn’t drain so much energy. It’s got to be more incremental; it’s got to be a little bit more thoughtful.

It sounds ridiculous but if you’re hungry, you don’t eat a whole cow, do you? You eat a burger. So, it’s about you trying to make a big leap palatable, easy to swallow, bite-sized, chunking it down, whatever and however that helps you manage it. Because that’s the reality for most of us after the clouds come. We might not feel like we’re Steve Jobs or Elon Musk or Howard Schultz, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want things to be better. It doesn’t mean we don’t aspire to big goals.

In Courage Goes to Work, Bill Treasurer says there are three types of courage"

  • Try courage – which is to have a go at new things
  • Trust courage – where you rely on others
  • Tell courage – where you speak your mind

These are the different ways in which you can show courage in small incremental and manageable ways. Courage isn’t facing an unknown and not being scared or intimidated. Courage is knowing the storm is outside, but still putting on your waterproofs and heading out there.

Personally, I’ve lived most of my career in a really safe, public sector job. Challenging, absolutely. Heartbreaking and life-affirming in equal measure but my job itself was pretty safe, so far as jobs go. Then the clouds came, and the situation changed and suddenly I had to set up on my own. Scared to death of the impact on my family and finances, but in a position where I had to saddle up anyway. A courageous leap of faith that has tested my resilience and brought me to the point at which I can now share these experiences.

Winston Churchill said: "Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak." That seems clear and obvious to anyone in these current times. Speaking out against the most obvious wrongs and incivility within the modern world – I think everyone understands that. But "courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen". 

It takes courage to sit and hear the truth about your situation, to sit and get the feedback on your performance or behaviour, to sit and hear critical comments made. No one likes to hear negativity, but if you show the courage to listen, really listen, to what the world is saying about your situation, you can gain so much.

People think courage is purely about what you do, how you speak, what you work towards and how you get everyone around moving. Actually, it’s also very much about the quiet moments of courage when you sit there and you listen. You listen to what you’re saying to yourself. And you listen to what may have been said. You know, you’re not going to agree with it all. I’m not even saying you need to take it all on board. But you’ve given yourself a chance to listen. Because if you don’t really sit and listen to yourself and others, I don’t think you can really understand yourself and others. That’s true courage.

Drew Povey is the author of When the Clouds Come: Dealing with Difficulties, Facing Your Fears, and Overcoming Obstacles

Further reading

Is it time to stop holding yourself back?

How coaching can help you thrive in times of change

Why change is difficult for the brain

Mental flexibility and resilience to change

What does it mean to be courageous?