The Virtues of Government Service: First Virtue – Courage

“Courage is the first of human virtues because it makes all others possible.”– Aristotle

Courage. The word itself comes from the French word for heart. So, when we act with courage, it’s an act of the heart. Bold courage is a brave heart. Robert “Dusty” Staub, who speaks and writes about courage, says “Courage is the cardiovascular system of the soul.” And, like exercise for our bodies, the cardiovascular system of the soul – our courage – can be nourished and strengthened by small, daily exercises.

Bill Treasurer, who wrote “A Leadership Kick in the Ass: How to Learn from Rough Landings, Blunders, and Missteps” shares a few insights on courage in the workplace. He talks about the three T’s – the three key behavioral buckets of courage:

1. Try Courage – The courage of first attempts. Seek and act upon your courage to learn and grow. Step up to the plate. Courage drives action. Action drives results.

2. Trust Courage – The courage to step into the unknown, into ambiguity. The courage to let go, to delegate and trust. It’s experiencing vulnerability.

3. Tell Courage – The courage of “voice” or assertiveness. The courage to dream and to express that dream despite critics, naysayers and your own self-doubt. The courage to tell truth to power. The courage to confront and to be confronted.

Most of us think about courage as the big, bold actions of heroes. Recently, I was talking to a long-time friend and fellow Air Force Academy graduate, Tom Griffith. In the first Gulf War, Tom’s aircraft was hit by a surface-to-air missile and shot down. After evading Iraqi forces for two days, he was captured and became a prisoner of war. After his release and a full Air Force career, Tom joined the State Department, serving in Haiti and South Sudan (he now lives in Arlington, Virginia). So, Tom’s seen a thing or two and he sums up his reflections and perspective on government service and courage with the following thoughts.

Knowing the right thing is just the first step. Then, we must act and actually do the right thing. That isn’t always easy, and that may be what people think about when it comes to courage.  t can mean risking your life in extreme circumstances, but it can also mean risking your career or a friendship. Courage is usually not a one-time event and it is never too late to do the right thing. You don’t give up because you failed once or even twice. Courage means doing it right the next time. 

One morning while Tom was being held in Baghdad, he was yanked out of his cell and shoved into a chair facing a video camera.  He knew immediately that the Iraqis wanted to him to make a statement condemning the war and the United States. Determined to resist, he held out as long as he could. Ultimately, a gun was put up to his temple and he was told, “Make the video or we will kill you.”  He made the video. “Maybe I could have been more courageous. Still, I understood the importance of not losing faith, of doing better the next time.”

As it relates to Government service in general, Tom says, “If we all had the courage to do better every time we are faced with a decision or dilemma, I think that we would be better as individuals and our organizations would be better as well.”

Courage is not the absence of fear. It is the transcendence of fear. As my ethics mentor, Linda Fisher Thornton, says, “Fear is a poor advisor.” Andrew Jackson put it this way, “Never take counsel of your fears.” Great leaders don’t lead through fear but rather drive fear out of the organization. What can you do today to drive fear out of your organization? Take a risk. Start building your capacity for courage so that it will be there in spades when you need to call upon it.  And remember the words of Winston Churchill who said:

 “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

Rick Pfautz is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Anna Taylor

I love this. Need to jot some of these quotes down for safe keeping. Looking forward to the rest of the series, Rick!

Sherie Sanders

Very insightful points made here! Impactful enough that I can even overlook the Andrew Jackson quote! (Not a fan!) Can you imagine if we all lived our lives with such courage, what a different place the world would be?