Finding Your Courage

Image by Celestine Chua

Image by Celestine Chua


COURAGE — By now we all have heard some variation of this definition: Courage is not the absence of fear but the ability triumph over it (Nelson Mandela). COURAGE is that act of will that pushes us forward in spite of fear. So as leaders, we are often the first confronted by things that frighten us. As leaders, we set the tone for what happens in the face of fear. And clearly, we can not have a discussion about courage without first having a discussion on fear

So what is fear? Fear shows up in many forms and so I want to first address three specific distinctions:

  1. Fear: the belief that, either due to some past experience or knowledge, something in the future is going to happen that will cause harm or pain. When we experience fear we can usually name the thing we are afraid of. Fear serves us – it seeks to keep us safe from harm.
  2. Anxiety: is a pervasive feeling that something pad is going to happen. Unlike fear, it cannot easily be named. Anxiety often shows up as a habit and, like many habits, we become exceedingly good at experiencing them but not as good at transforming them.
  3. Self-doubt: is a state of self trust in our own capabilities or our own being. This is often a feeling that we will be revealed as an imposter, an outsider, a fraud, or something else that generally conflicts with our personal value system.

Sometimes, we experience a combination of these or even all three. A fireman knows that fire is hot and can burn or kill him. He has fear of the fire. If he were to die in the line of duty, what would happen to his family? Would his son grow up without a father? He begins to feel anxiety. As that anxiety takes hold he starts to wonder if he is strong enough, skilled enough. Maybe he can’t pass the physical test. What if his anxiety starts to put himself and his team at risk? He is now experiencing self doubt.

Why is this important? The first step to transforming our emotion is to name it. What’s the obstacle that is getting in the way? Knowing what it is helps us to determine what path to move to transform it:

Step 1: If I can name my fear I can take actions to minimize or eliminate the risk altogether. In the example of the fireman, the risk of fire injury is mitigated through extensive training, protective clothing, and supportive team – a network of support. For many people, the desire to serve as a fireman is simply not as strong as the fear of fire and so they would choose a different career.

Fear is very much an emotion in the future tense. Fears are concerned with things that have not and may never happen. Taking action in the current time is one way to ground back to the present. Another way to become present is to steep into an emotion that is concerned with the present tense, like gratitude. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay. Righ tnow, today, we are still alive, and our bodies are working marvelously. Our eyes can still see the beautiful sky. Our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones.”

Step 2: If you’re experiencing anxiety (or anxiety is revealed once the fear is resolved) and we’ve decided that there’s still a pervasive worry over the unknown, it may help to start making the unknown known. This really turns it into a fear and then we can take action on it. Again, the fireman may choose an insurance plan to make sure that his family has enough money to pay the bills. He might start making a journal of letters to his son – things he wants his son to learn from him.

Because anxiety is concerned with an unknown future, it may also help to transform that unknown future into one of possibilities. Anxiety’s sister emotion is excitement. They feel virtually the same but the only difference is the language. What if instead of the belief that he will die the fireman instead is focused on the lives he will be able to save? This gentle shift of language and emotion can often bring in the ability to experience gratitude and ground back to the present tense.

Step 3: If we are left will self doubt, we must again name – what is it that we are afraid to be seen as? And what if that is so? Many of us would never want to be seen as weak, or incompetent, or foolish, or lazy, or fake… What is it that you fear you might be seen as? And what would happen if, instead, you were seen in your true identity? Your authenticity. Sometimes we fear being seen for our truth because it shows our soft vulnerable underbelly. So what? That which makes us vulnerable makes us human and from our humanity we have the ability to relate. It’s from our vulnerability, not our strength, that we endear others to us. And when we are surrounded by others, we have strength. Self doubt is largely about the fear of being left alone and being found imperfect. By bringing a network of support to the table we are able to bring the strengths of many to the table. We are able to become stronger than we can imagine. This is leadership. This is confidence, power, and pride.

Step 4: (Which could be Step 0) We’ve addressed fear linguistically (intellectually) by naming it and reframing it. We have discussed the possibility of emotional shifts. What’s left is the opportunity for a somatic shift. In all of the emotions we’ve stated: fear, anxiety, self doubt, our body is having a particular experience as well. It could be shallow breathing. It could be a body that is closing in and being very small. It could be an eye gaze that is facing down or away. By shifting our bodies into the shape of grounded gratitude or powerful determination, we can begin to shift our way of being. In what Amy Cuddy refers to as our Power Position, we have the ability to shift our hormonal makeup, to raise our testosterone (ability to feel powerful) while lowering cortisol (our experience of stress) by simply opening up our bodies, allowing for bigger movements and more airflow. Moreover, by practicing these body positions consistently throughout the day we can shift our resilient center so that the HABIT of experiencing anxiety becomes replaced with a HABIT of feeling powerful.


  • What is an area of your life or career that could be enhanced with MORE courage?
  • Is the obstacle Fear, Anxiety or Self-Doubt?
    • Fear: name the fear. What steps can you take to address them?
    • Anxiety: what is unknown? How can you make them KNOWN and mitigate the known risks?
    • Self Doubt: what are you afraid to be seen as? How can you bring your authentic self to bear on the situation?
  • Assume your power pose for two minutes. What’s different now?


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