What is this inner strength that the lion in the Wizard of Oz so longed for? Where do you find it, how do you harness it, and how can you increase its intensity? Courage, like hope, faith and love, resides in the inner depths of our human spirit. It has no physical qualities; it can’t be detected through any of our normal five senses.
Courage is internal, and its level unique to each individual….
From an outsider’s perspective, it is convenient to think that high-profile leaders were born confident, but when you take a closer look at the biographies of great people, more often than not they faced many challenges in their road to adulthood. It is not a coincidence that many of history’s greatest leaders came from humble and difficult beginnings.
Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, was raised on a farm during the Depression. He moved many times as a child watching his father struggle to earn a living for his family. Sam grew up milking cows and delivering papers and doing whatever chores needed to be done to help the Walton family make ends meet.
Abraham Lincoln grew up in a log cabin, in rural Kentucky with only eighteen months of formal education. He taught himself. His parents were illiterate.
Colin Powell grew up in Harlem, the son of immigrant Jamaican parents. Warren Bennis grew up in hardworking, middle-class Jewish family in Westwood, New Jersey. It was his childhood challenges, his military experience, and his slow but steady climb up the academic ladder that allowed him to become one of the greatest experts and thinkers in leadership today. History proves time and time again that adversity and challenge are great opportunities for building courage.
In his book Losing My Virginity, Richard Branson, the wildly successful CEO of Virgin Group, relates a story from his childhood. His aunt bet him that he could learn to swim while on a family vacation at the shore, and he tried but was unsuccessful. On the way home, they were driving alongside a swiftly flowing river. Branson asked his mother to stop the car so that he could try once more to win that bet. She agreed and promised to pick him up upstream. In he went. The current was strong, and his family members watched as he struggled to stay afloat. In that moment, with no one jumping in to save him, facing the prospect of drowning, he figured out how to swim. This ability to take on a frightening and challenging situation has helped him become one of the most successful businessmen in the world.
Some leaders come into their positions with more courage than others. But the good news is that courage is an attribute that can be developed, strengthened, and fortified through practice. Courage-building starts with a commitment to recognising, identifying, and stepping up to your fears…
When I entered the MBA program at the College of William and Mary in 1978, I was oblivious to the scope of the challenges I would encounter. I was one of only two students in my class who did not have a financial undergraduate degree, and the first year was unbelievably difficult. Sitting in my first week of class in managerial economics, I realised that calculus (which I had never taken) was a foundation course. It was assumed that you knew it. I had to teach myself calculus while taking a full load of other subjects that were completely new to me. I wrote the ten derivatives on my hand before every class to help me.
By the end of the first semester, I weighed only ninety-five pounds. I was paying my own way, working two part-time jobs at night, and receiving absolutely no help from my parents, who thought I was nuts to get an MBA when finding a rich husband was a lot easier.
What didn’t kill me, however, certainly made me stronger — and more courageous. That first year at William and Mary was pivotal for the strengthening of my leadership character. The hardships I faced and the fears I overcame taught me that I was capable of just about anything I set my mind to.
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