Courage is Not the Absence of Fear

There is a quote from Franklin D. Roosevelt that says, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.”

We have a “fearless” business culture that encourages bravado and says go for it or else you’re weak. I’m going to suggest we might want to take a step back before going for it. Fear is actually a healthy thing and not a sign of weakness. It is a primal signal that says danger might be present, or harm might be imminent. Lack of fear in the face of danger is not courageous, it’s reckless and can lead to negative consequences.

As Roosevelt says, courage is moving forward towards something more important than the fear. Courage is doing the right thing when no one is looking when no one will ever know. Courage is making a decision that may not be popular in the short-term but ultimately will be for the greater good in the long-term.

Entrepreneurs are faced with many such decisions on a daily basis. Naturally more inclined to take risks than the average person, they have a high tolerance for risk. But the savvy leader recognizes fear and its value. Leaders who have no fear continue to make terrible decisions and don’t worry about the consequences. Sometimes they even assume that the pieces will just be picked up by someone else. Most entrepreneurs don’t have that luxury – a big mistake can mean the shuttering of the business.

But fear can also be paralyzing for the entrepreneur – the fear of a wrong choice or a bad decision can paralyze the leader into indecision. Indecision by a leader is one of the most highly reported complaints by employees and will cause them to leave.

So how do we embrace courage if we have not been on the front lines for a while? The answer is “purpose.” The reason people are courageous and move beyond their fear is the “why.” Why are we doing this? What is the purpose? People will follow you all day long if they buy into the “why” of the proposition (for more on this see Simon Sinek – Start with Why) versus the “what.” Leaders get so caught up in explaining the “how” and the “what” of something that they forget to explain the purpose. The only way people will make a decision to follow is if they know the why.

Next time you feel that fear – of failure, humiliation, danger, loss, indecision, etc. – think about what is most important. Courage is getting on the other side of that and leading the way. John McCain did just that last week with his “no” vote on the proposed health care legislation. That’s courage.