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A Formula for Courage

A Formula for Courage

I recently read Breaking the Fear Barrier by Tom Rieiger of Gallup Consulting.  In it, he makes the case that parochialism, territorialism, and bureaucracy grow from fear.  Managers fear losing the ability to control their outcomes so they build organizational barriers, e.g., unnecessary or self-serving rules and policies, to protect their interests.  Ultimately, those barriers do more than protect parochial interests: they protect the organization from succeeding.  Rieger also offers sound medicine for organizations that are wrapped up in fear and bureaucracy.

Rieger Sets a Low Bar

His advice is good, but he sets an awfully low bar for people.  He seems to accept that people will not be courageous and recommends methods for breaking barriers erected out of fear. Rather than treating the nasty symptoms – the barriers of bureaucracy – we should aspire to overcome the fear that gives rise to it.  Cowardice succumbs to fear whereas courage overcomes it.  I don’t know about you, but I would rather overcome than succumb.  Courage is a virtue; cowardice is a vice.

We fear failure, we fear looking silly, we fear seeming inferior to others, and we fear losing what we have.  Fear stops us from voicing a dissenting opinion, changing jobs, confronting poor behavior, facing problems, and so on.

It’s plain to me that people need a formula for courage more than they need a medicine for dealing with the symptoms of cowardice.

Life Calls for a High Bar

I would like to offer my addendum to Breaking the Fear Barrier.  I’ll call it “A Formula for Courage.”  Everyone should learn this formula by heart because courage is an essential element of a virtuous character.


  • Moral Compass
  • Worthy Goal
  • Humility
  • Self Sacrifice

* Note: Some formulas call for a measure of love.

I confess that I don’t know the proper portions, but I am confident that each is needed.

Moral Compass

A moral compass is the first ingredient because you must want to be virtuous and know what virtue looks like in order to pursue it.  Your moral compass also gives you a clear vision to see where the trials of today are headed and to know what to do about them.  Today’s small transgressions often lead to grave consequences tomorrow.  A strong moral compass provides you with that foresight and the wisdom to face trials now.

Worthy Goal

Why would anyone stare down a giant, risk failure, or endure personal harm?  Because the cause is worth it!  Of course, if you haven’t set out to accomplish anything or set your mind on being a certain kind of person, then you have no reason to take a risk.  When I am coaching people, I’ve learned that they need to be reminded of their values and goals when they are facing tough situations.  Often, all it takes for people to move to action is a simple reminder of who they are striving to be.


Have you seen the t-shirts proclaiming “It’s all about me,” “Queen Bee,” or “I’m with stupid”?  Don’t wear them.  Courage requires a clear understanding that “it” is not all about you.  Instead, it’s about putting a transcendent goal above your personal interests, and courageous leadership means placing that goal and other people before you.  The Apostle Paul counsels Christians in Philippi as follows:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others more important than yourselves.  Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3-4)

I’ve noticed that humble people are generally trusted and admired.  I’ve also noticed that the same people who esteem others for their humility often bristle at the notion that they should submit to others or truly serve people.  It feels demeaning, and perhaps it is, but true humility and submission are hard to separate.


The ultimate act of valor is to give one’s life for another person or cause.  Boys, even grown men, fantasize about being the hero who rescues another person from imminent bodily harm.  In real life self-sacrifice comes in smaller increments – kind of like Chinese water torture.  The little opportunities for self-sacrifice can seem like occasions to erode dignity one annoying drop at a time. Instead of the drama of life or death, the stakes we face are things like approval from others, a chance at a promotion, bonuses, inconvenience, and our fragile egos.  This type of self-sacrifice is a bit less glamorous and a lot harder to choose.

That’s it – that is my formula for courage.  I don’t expect Mr. Rieger to include it in his second edition, but one never knows!

What do you think of my formula? Will you try it?  Would you change it a little and make it your own?