Courage can’t be taught, I’m told.  It can be learned though.

I wasn’t taught it…but I did learn it.

One day long ago my professional career seemed torn asunder by an organizational change.  At that time, I believed that all I had worked for was no longer firm ground on which to base my next successes (that is the way it seemed, anyway).

“It is only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything” – Tyler Durden

I use that quote way too often.  My perception at the time was that I had lost everything.  There was a new regime moving in.  My colleagues resigned themselves to stagnation while the new leaders arrived and established their top-down plans.  This seemed really familiar to me…

“Meet the new boss…same as the old boss…” – The Who

Not wanting to have to repeat the last 2+ years, I chose a different approach.  I started just doing.  Taking on stuff that needed doing, defining my role myself (I helped my managers find the titles that fit later).  Questioning things and providing good alternatives.  Turns out everyone else was questioning the same things, but no one was doing anything about them…one reason is because they perceived that they had a lot to lose.

I’ve learned many things about courage over the years…here are two:

1) Everyone has some amount of courage bottled inside them.  It just doesn’t come out, for many seemingly-good reasons – the obstacles to learning courage.

Why does having nothing make it easy to find courage?  Perceiving that we may lose something or be punished if we act courageously and make a mistake is an obstacle in the way of courageous behavior.  The “easy,” less risky path is almost always the one that everyone takes – not bucking the trend, ignoring the elephant, not calling out an improvement opportunity, not making waves or rocking boats.  “My boss got promoted by not doing these things, should I not behave the same?”  Groupthink and peer pressure make being courageous difficult too.

2) Once someone realizes that good things happen from courageous acts, it becomes far easier for others to be more courageous.

Eli Goldratt, in “Beyond the Goal,” describes a psychological experiment done on Harvard MBA students – strong personalities who would likely be future business leaders (my apologies in case I am getting the details slightly wrong).  A group of these students are shown three very different lines on a card – a short line, a medium length line, and a long line.  They are then showed a second card, on which a line is drawn that is very clearly the same length as one of the three lines (let’s say it is as long as line #2 for clarity).  They are all asked “which line on card 1 is this line most like?”  Though the answer is clearly #2, all of the participants except one have been prepped to answer “line #1″ – the wrong answer.  The final participant, who has not been prepped, chooses “line #1″ – the obviously wrong answer – 90% of the time the test is conducted!

The experiment continues…this time, one of the prepped participants answers correctly – “line #2!”  When one participant bucks the trend (described as “one ray of light”,) 75% of the test subjects also stick to what they believe the correct answer is rather than conforming.

(Note: I can not find the original source for this experiment- please contact me if you can!)

What can we do to help us choose the harder path/path less traveled?

I believe that the things that prevent people from being courageous are obstacles to success.  We – as leaders, coaches, scrum masters – are here to remove obstacles from our teams’ way.  Assuming courage is a success factor for projects (which I do, especially on Agile projects), how can we encourage it?

We can’t teach courage, but we can certainly remove the obstacles that prevent people from acting with courage

1) Create the “one ray of light” that will break the conformity trend.  Demonstrate courage the first time.  Leading by example as a coach or scrum master, you can show a team that courage is desirable.    Some very simple examples that have worked for me include:

  • Admit to a mistake very publicly and proudly.  I’ve found making very public a mistake of mine and its impacts results in others sharing their own more, and taking more accountability – it breaks the ice for others to realize that mistakes are part of learning.  This is the easiest way to start changing a team culture from one of introversion to one of collaboration and teamwork
  • Escalate a particularly uncomfortable team obstacle to leadership and facilitate its resolution.  This can be really effective if the obstacle is one that team members believe is not going to be resolved.  That overwhelming release/migration process that no one wants to call out, for example, or some other set of rules that the teams just feel are just “the way it is” and that they have no hope of improving

2) Encourage courageous acts.  When you see them, point them out.   Discuss as a team how courage resulted in good things (for example, talking about an “elephant in the room” helped us have a great group discussion that resulted in starting to consider addressing the big issue that was previously being ignored).  Make courageous acts infectious.  Use informal awards (I’ve seen “Zena” and similar awards used informally for such things).  Help a team member champion an idea that may not be popular or an easy sell.

As a coach, scrum master, or other leader, do whatever you can to create an environment that rewards courage.  Sometimes this means leading by example to be the “one ray of light” illuminating an elephant.  Sometimes this means admitting to an embarrassing mistake and helping the teams realize the benefit of sharing mistakes/learning.  And sometimes this is simply helping a team member be courageous themselves.  Whichever, I see coaching courage – removing the obstacles to learning courage – as a constant role of servant leaders.