• Dr. Christine Senn, PhD

Character Strengths: Courage

Hello! Today we're going to continue our series on character strengths. This time we are going to talk about the virtue of courage. This is something I've wanted to talk about in terms of leadership for quite some time because I think they're so linked together. I absolutely do not see how a person can be a good leader without having the strength of courage.


The first Character Strength I'm going to talk about is bravery. “Bravery is the ability to do what needs to be done despite fear. This view of bravery allows the strength to be applied beyond the domain of battle, to saying or doing the unpopular but correct thing, to facing a terminal illness with equanimity, and to resisting peer pressure regarding a morally questionable shortcut.” (Peterson and Seligman, 2004) I think you can appreciate that when we have difficult conversations – when we speak up at a company because we think it's not the right thing (the choice that’s being made), or we could see a way that it could be better – those are ways that we display bravery. To me, they're very important. I said a couple of videos ago that to ‘stay in your lane’ is a ridiculous saying unless you understand that your lane is the entire company. You're there for the company. The same is true also for yourself. I mean, obviously, you don't have to be in it for the company. That's your choice to make. But if you speak up and have bravery, you probably will speak up at the company. You'll probably also speak up when there are other social justice issues. You'll speak up in a lot of places where you don't see things going the way that you think is appropriate. But also, speaking up for yourself, holding, ‘staying in your own lane’, protecting yourself, and knowing your boundaries is also a way of showing yourself bravery. And sometimes people don't feel okay expressing bravery outside of themselves because they don't express it into themselves yet, either. Now of course, they probably don't have the character strength of bravery that we're talking about here. We can help them, but that's what it is here. I absolutely love the idea of bravery.


I think I mentioned last time that each of these character strengths were done by factor analysis, but they also had to meet certain criteria, and one of them is: Do they have an opposite that is negative? If they have an opposite that is not negative, the authors weren't sure they could call the positive version strength if there was no negative, right? So, the opposite of bravery, or valor, is cowardice or spinelessness. This is a really interesting one. I see this a lot in the business world because there is so much perfectionism. It’s this: “the paralyzing anxieties that may plague us can also be seen as the absence of bravery.” (Peterson and Seligman, 2004) What a fascinating look at having anxieties, right? That if we are allowing paralysis by analysis because our anxiety is too great to release our product, or we don't speak up because we're so anxious about what people think of us, we are not displaying bravery.


This next character strength that's part of courage is one you're absolutely going to see is applicable in the workplace and actually very promotable. And that is persistence. Persistence is defined as “finishing what one has started, keeping on despite obstacles, taking care of business, achieving closure, staying on task, getting it off one's desk and out the door. All of these refer to the strength of character that we identify as persistence, perseverance, and industriousness.” (Peterson and Seligman, 2004) Obviously, you can see that, like I said, these are pretty promotable character strengths because someone who sticks with a project is going to finish it, is going to make sure their follow-up tasks are done, and has probably followed the process correctly. All very important things. I actually said that all of these character strengths seem promotable to me, but there could be a caveat with bravery. In the last video, I talked about the character strength of, or the virtue of, justice. If you are in a workplace that you feel that justice is not a virtue of that organization and you’re high in bravery and the ability and willingness to speak out about what you think is unjust, then you’re probably not a culture fit. And in that case, the one about speaking out, bravery would not be a promotable thing in that instance.


The next one is integrity, which is just an absolute personal favorite of mine. It says, “it includes truthfulness, but also about taking responsibility for how one feels and what one does. It includes the genuine presentation of oneself to others, what might be termed authenticity, as well as the internal sense that one is a morally coherent being, what we might term integrity.” (Peterson and Seligman, 2004) And it says there are moral transgressions like lying and cheating that are relevant to honesty, but there's so much more about integrity, which is about being true to oneself and true to one's values. It says that you can be honest and yet if you're not showing your true self, you’re not showing integrity. Like, you can say honest words and you can tell the truth to people, but if you're not expressing who you truly are and, perhaps, you're more of a chameleon, then that would not show integrity. That I have certainly seen being important in the workplace. I haven't seen it that much for a while, but you know where someone will play two managers off of each other. For example, it can sometimes be they're showing this version of themselves to this manager because that's what that manager values and a different version of themselves to another manager. As long as it's truly part of themselves, that shows integrity. But if they're just changing who they are to say the things that that manager wants to hear, that is not being true to oneself and is not showing integrity. This, like all the others in this section, are considered traits. And that means that you pretty much either have them or you don't. You can't really train someone to have integrity. You can, however, do some things to help people show off these character strengths and demonstrate them more than they might currently to the extent that they possess them.

The last one in the section is vitality, which is a fun one. I don't know that this makes a person more promotable or not. I think it would edge them ahead in some situations, but it certainly makes a person someone you want to work with and really helps with trust in a lot of ways. An inspiration. And, going to last week's blog about leadership and being inspirational, a transformational leader. “Vitality refers to feeling alive, being full of zest, and displaying enthusiasm for all activities.” (Peterson and Seligman, 2004) It talks about bringing something fulfilling to activities, like this sense that something is worth pursuing. And that, as you can imagine, inspires people. So, this sense of vitality is one that you know when it's missing. Imagine you are going up for a promotion and you are pretty much as equally qualified as a couple of their people, but you have other character strengths and you're not sure which one might be more helpful in the job or not. But then when it comes to vitality, I think you can appreciate that. I think a lot of times vitality might come to be seen as the higher thing, because here are the opposites of vitality: “sluggish, depressed, subdued, dull, jaded, listless, limp, lethargic, lifeless.” (Peterson and Seligman, 2004) You can be promoted with a lack of zest, a lack of vitality, but leadership is going to be a bit elusive I would think, because of the importance of charisma in leadership and the ability to inspire others.


So those are the four, and I wanted to tell you about this book I read, The Brave Athlete. I'm really just enthralled with the idea of bravery being important in life in general, but this one is particularly written by a psychologist for competitive athletes (which I'm not, by the way.) But I love the topic so much and I wanted to read about it because it's really about having strength in your own life to overcome your own fears. Like, what's holding athletes back from being a little bit better, from doing a little bit more on the days they don't want to do things? Because we all know motivation is a lacking resource for most of us. We pretty much have to persevere (perseverance!) despite how we feel a lot of times. And if you are trying to be a competitive athlete, that'd be true. But aren’t we just competitive businesspeople? And I don't mean a competition with others, but isn't that what we're striving to do? Be the best at what we do? So anyway, it's a great book because you can abstract and extrapolate to other domains, such as your own personal life for business.

So, here's why I wanted to talk about this book briefly. It’s not because it has the word bravery in it, but because we can help people who work with us express some of their character strengths a little bit better if we see the value of building them up as humans. And so, there is a business case for building up the people you work with as humans and it is a leadership role, but we'll talk about it in terms of this: self-confidence. In this quote from The Brave Athlete, I'm going to change the word ‘athlete’ to ‘person’ so that we don't forget that it applies to everyone:


“Self-confidence is the psychological wonder drug. Everything improves when a [person]'s self-confidence is high. [People] with high confidence feel less anxious, relish adversity, set higher goals, try harder, tolerate more exertional pain...”– so like at the job, they'll keep working harder to meet a goal – “...feel more in control, are more optimistic and enthusiastic, and do better under pressure. They also have less anxiety when things don't go according to plan.”


Well, that sounds tremendous. I mean, I completely want to work with that person, don't you? So, what the psychologist author is saying is that you can help people show their character strengths that we've just been talking about by helping them build their confidence. Now, that doesn't mean you're their therapist. You don't have to be their mentor. You don't have to be their friend. But it's easy to give people positive, specific feedback for what they do well to help build their self-confidence and focus on what they do well. Even if you have to talk to them about seizing opportunities to improve something else, help them feel self-confident. You're building up their character strengths in general.

That is this one. I will see you for a few more episodes of character strengths later. Bye!


Further Reading:

  • Character Strengths and Virtues by Drs. Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman (2004)

  • The Brave Athlete: Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion by Simon Marshall, PhD and Lesley Paterson (2017)



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