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Courage of the Follower

Courage is the great balancer of power in relationships. An individual who is not afraid to speak and act on the truth as she perceives it, despite external inequities in a relationship, is a force to be reckoned with.

Courage implies risk. If there is no risk, courage is not needed. Life, of course, is full of risk at every turn, at every moment. We usually structure our lives to reduce risk to an acceptable level. Courage requires a willingness to consciously raise our level of risk, at least in the short term.

A priest must be willing to tell the bishop that moral turpitude is being covered up in his see. An aide must be willing to tell the governor that her policies will cause severe hardship. A mid-level manager must be willing to tell senior management that by only paying lip service to quality or customer service they are undermining its implementation.

While silence may appear the safe choice, it often leaves our relationships with leaders or peers sapped of the vitality that honest dialogue produces. A follower needs the courage of an inquisitive child who asks questions without fear, but also needs the courage of an adult who bears the responsibility for a family. The family’s need for security may clash with the need to risk that security for higher principles. This is a core issue, for without the willingness to risk on this profound level, we won’t speak the truth. From where can we draw the courage to speak and act our truth and not be inhibited from doing so by the potential consequences?

On a practical level, if our livelihood depends on our position with the leader, it is healthy for us to develop contingency plans should we fall out of favor. Another job opportunity, money in the bank to support us for a year, a working spouse or partner, any of these can provide a safety net that makes our leap of courage less intimidating. If our career will be jeopardized by a clash with the leader, plotting alternate career paths can reduce the potential severity of the consequences. Being prepared to be fired is the antidote to silencing ourselves.

On a deeper level, each of us may find our own courage springs from a different source:

our religious beliefs,

our philosophy,

a role model,

a vision of the future,

a vow made from past experience,

an event that tested us,

a conviction we hold,

our values,

our empathy for others,

our self-esteem,

commitment to our comrades,

outrage felt toward injustice.

If we are clear on the source of our courage, it prepares us to accept the consequences of our actions. To act courageously, we may not need to free ourselves from fear, but to experience our fear in the context of our source of courage. If you have ever been in a situation you believed was truly dangerous, you know the intensity of the emotional energy generated by fear. Suppressing the energy contained in this fear and “rising above it” is one strategy. Another strategy, perhaps more effective, is to let the fear rise up fully, acknowledge it, and then channel the energy locked within that fear into the service of our principles and goals. If our principles and goals are clear, enormous self-empowerment can occur.

We probably have to fail a few times before we succeed. The first time we are confronted with the use of raw power, with its assumptions and attitude and force, it is so startling that we may well flinch or freeze. We may need to go away and prepare ourselves to meet it again.

Our “courage muscle” will develop to the degree we exercise it. If we exercise it when the risks are small, it will be strong enough to meet the challenge when the risks are large. Ultimately, there are no formulas for courage: we develop it through determination and practice, self- forgiveness when we fail, and growth when we learn.