Safety Culture / Psychology

The courage to stand and deliver the bad news

October 19, 2010
KEYWORDS careers / management
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My ninth grade gym teacher was the bravest man I’ve ever met. He was a lean Marine lieutenant in his 20s, fresh back from a tour in Vietnam. One of his arms was a short stump, amputated above the elbow. His back and legs carried shrapnel wounds so grievous he was administered last rites three times. One day he was teaching our class new rules for an indoor kickball game. My turn came to lead off for my side, and I froze, not knowing what to do. “Don’t think, act!” barked the lieutenant.

My Marine gym teacher was courageous. But compassionate? Can the two go together?

I am struck by the difficulty of defining courage and compassion. Competence can be measured and graded. So I emailed a few dozen people I know in the professional world and asked for their take on courage and compassion. I did some background reading as well.

Based on what I learned, here are ten thoughts about courage and compassion to start your wheels turning.

1 – Courage and compassion are in the eyes of the beholder. Everyone has a personal perspective on acts of courage and compassion. Bob gets out of his car to remove a trashcan from the middle of the street. An act of courage? Not necessarily, particularly if the road is empty of traffic. An act of compassion, to prevent someone from hitting the trashcan? Perhaps Bob’s natural conscientiousness or commitment compels his act. He always picks litter, buckles up his safety belt, and helps grannies with their groceries.

2 - Waffling is OK. A soldier from Indiana in the Civil War believed ten percent of his comrades in the Northern army were “arrant cowards,” another ten percent were genuinely courageous, and the remaining 80 percent dithered between cowardice and courage. This comes from the book, “The Union Soldier in Battle,” by Earl J. Hess. “Good soldiers occasionally waffled toward the darker margins of courage, and then corrected themselves,” Hess writes.

3 – Context counts. The outcome of our inner struggle (Scott calls this “self-talk”) - to speak out, show we care, sit silently or flee - can depend on time and place. Many emails I received from professionals regarding our ability to be courageous and compassionate came prefaced with the caveat: “Well, it depends…”

Experts call this “situational leadership” or “circumstantial leadership.” General George S. Patton, Jr. described one circumstance: “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” Extreme exhaustion can put courage and compassion beyond our reach. “Running with the herd” discourages courage and compassion. Years ago in one of his columns, Scott wrote of the dangers of group-think. “To get along, you go along” and hide behind group consensus.

4 – Personality comes into play. Bob is waiting in the lobby of a corporation, watching a maintenance man teetering atop an eight-foot step-ladder. Bob strolled over, intent on discussing “a bothersome at-risk behavior.” To change a light bulb, the man was stretching, balancing on the toes of one foot.

Bob is a competent safety expert. He has a committed sense of duty to matters of safety. He is also quite the extrovert, naturally talkative and someone who “gains energy from interacting with people,” as Scott describes.

5 – Self-love can produce courage and compassion. President John F. Kennedy wrote in his book, “Profiles in Courage,” that acts of courage and compassion occur when a man’s regard for himself is so high his own self-respect demands he follow the path of courage and conscience. Kennedy wrote leaders share “above all, a deep-seated belief in themselves, their integrity, and the rightness of their cause.”

6 – It helps to see the bigger picture. Feeling passionate about a “cause” draws out courage and compassion. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a Northern officer in the Civil War, believed his men joined the army because they were determined to safeguard national unity, according to “The Union Soldier in Battle.”

Or as JFK wrote in “Profiles in Courage,” referring specifically to U.S. Senators, “It is on national issues, on matters of conscience which challenge party and regional loyalties, that the test of courage is presented.”

7 – Culture counts. The culture, or “the way things are done around here,” can either elevate or diminish feelings of courage and compassion. Hess writes in his book, “Courage itself, enshrined by American culture as a supremely valuable ideal of action and thought, was an immensely potent factor in keeping Northern soldiers on the battlefield.”

8 – Life is not a battlefield. One email respondent complained: “Frankly I’m tired of battlefield analogies to define a kind of courage most of us will never need.” OK, what about corporate confrontations that might be familiar to many of us. This calls for self-examination and reflection that produce moral courage to steady us through challenging circumstances, not the physical courage to dodge bullets. Many Civil War soldiers made a similar distinction. They commonly believed moral courage was a daily necessity - we’ve got to keep on keeping on - while physical courage was required only in emergencies, writes Hess.

9 – Idle hands may lead to lame acts. A number of Civil War soldiers believed moral courage, based on reflection, was the more reliable form of bravery, because physical courage could be fickle, depending on emotional reactions, writes Hess. But he also describes one soldier’s battleground dilemma: he had too much time to reflect. In his mind, privates, who had less responsibility than busy officers, more often fell prey to the temptation to save themselves and cut and run.

10 – Opportunity knocks, and knocks again. As I learned in that gym class, you can blow it, fail to “do the right thing,” but you will get another chance at bat. Hess writes, “No matter how badly mauled in their first battle, soldiers always had the opportunity to bounce back.”

Or to quote JFK in “Profiles in Courage”: “To be courageous… requires no exceptional qualifications, no magic formula, no special combination of time, place and circumstance. It is an opportunity that sooner or later is presented to all of us.”

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