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Bad Hair and Dr. Angelou

Ben Whiting, February 4, 2019


Ben Whiting and Dr. Maya Angelou

It was spring 2005. I was an awkward college student. I had little self-confidence, bad hair (long hair un-styled does not a Johnny Depp make), and only a vague awareness of who I was because I spent so much time focusing on what I thought others wanted me to be (or would at least be impressed by). However, I had one ace up my sleeve. I was one of 20 lucky students to be enrolled in a poetry class taught by Dr. Maya Angelou. One lesson she taught us has always stood out to me…

Some fellow students and I were having a small discussion/argument about various virtues and which one we thought was the most important. I had recently learned about The Marshmallow Experiment and how delayed gratification was the hallmark of maturity and success, so my money was on patience. Others thought honesty, others loyalty, others compassion, and the discussion was getting heated. Then Dr. Angelou walked in the room and we posed the question to her.

“The most important virtue? Why that’s easy. The most important virtue is courage. For without courage no other virtue can be practiced with consistency.”

The class fell silent. The discussion was over. Checkmate Dr. Angelou. We moved on and she read Robert Burns’ Scots Wha Hae with full Scotish dialect. That’s how she rolled.

It was awesome, and it was a big lesson for me. It occurred to me I could spend my whole life trying to be kind, patient, compassionate, or honest, but when the going got tough, if I hadn’t developed courage, odds were good everything else would fall to the wayside.

So how do we develop courage in ourselves and our teams? Follow these three simple steps to help kick a courage culture into high gear:

  1. Embrace vulnerability
    Vulnerability is defined as uncertainty, risk, or emotional exposure. Can you think of a single act of courage that didn’t involve embracing vulnerability? Don’t worry, when Brené Brown posed this question to a group of 500 US Military Special Forces Operators they couldn’t either. To embrace courage is to embrace vulnerability. Work to realize progress requires vulnerability, so if you’re uncomfortable, you’re probably doing it right.
  2. Start with self-awareness
    People tend to shy away from discomfort or avoid it all together. To do that we develop habits and behaviors that numb the discomfort. These habits can be as severe as drinking or drug use, but more often than not they’re simpler things like scrolling through social media to procrastinate, binging on Netflix to avoid a tough conversation, or ghosting someone altogether. The next time you catch yourself about to engage in one of these (or any) unproductive activities ask yourself, “Am I doing this because I’m trying to numb a discomfort? If so, what’s the best thing that could happen if I lean into that discomfort?” More often than not, the answer to the second question is progress.
  3. Go first
    If we want to develop courage not just within ourselves but within our teams, we have to remember that people are more likely to model the behaviors they see than listen to instructions they hear. That means we have to practice personal accountability when it comes to practicing courage and we can’t expect other people to jump in if we’re not willing to. “I need to go first,” is your mantra for courage.

Bonus strategy: Don’t forget to praise others when you see them working to develop their courage. Be sure to praise the effort and not the results of that effort. Courage isn’t a switch we can easily flip. It takes work and inevitably, we’re not always going to lean into our discomfort. However, people are more likely to continue working to improve if we praise their efforts instead of labeling them as “courageous.”

Another hard learned lesson from 2005: If you want to grow your hair long, remember it only looks good if you actually learn how to style it.

Share: | Tags: Courage, Self Awareness