[February 25, 2019] These words are by the legendary Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu; written more than two millennia ago. Courage is an attribute that is highly prized; and it matters not from what culture we observe. To study the idea of courage is to gain a better understanding of its nature, its benefits, and why it exists.
“From caring comes courage.” – Lao Tzu1, ancient Chinese philosopher and writer
I’m no philosopher, but what interested me in Lao Tzu and many who followed his line of reasoning was the idea that courage has its origin in another primitive human trait: caring. These are inseparable traits in humans. The mother who protects her child while in danger and who ignores possible harm to herself is a classic example of courage.
Some psychologists have argued that courage is inherent and that our genetic makeup determines how much of it each of us possesses. I’m not so sure about that because, from my experience, caring and courage are very much learned attributes. Yes, I will admit there may be some proclivity or deep-seated emotional drive to express these. However, there may be some unique human quality to act contrary to our fight or flight instincts.
I have argued in the past that the most important leadership characteristic is caring.2 Why then is it then that we see the idea of caring is largely ignored while courage put onto a high pedestal? I think the reasoning centers on the fact that most of us are uneducated and undisciplined in the ways of knowing the motivations of individuals under stress.
When humans are tested to their limits, their true attributes come to the surface. I saw this in combat (the ultimate stressor) when life and death decisions are made, and the results are immediate. I like to think that most humans, if trained and experienced, will make the right choices (ethically and efficiently).
While that may be arguably true about daily decision making, what is not contested is that the courage we show is closely tied to how much we care about those around us. Soldiers in combat demonstrate over and again that in a nasty firefight that they fight for their buddies, not for the good of humankind.
It is the caring element in people that make us “good” and, as such, transcends rational thinking. It becomes faith. Without faith in those around us, we would not care. Leadership means tapping into this psychological phenomena and understanding it. We must never forget that courage is derived from caring.
- 老子; Laozi, Lao-Tze, or Lao-Tzu; literally “Old Master”