Action Wheel Leadership

Courageous Leadership Ignites
Authentic Leadership Action

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by Dr. Robert Terry

Courageous leadership is risk-taking toward a virtuous end with no predictable outcome. ~ Robert Terry quoted from Authentic Leadership: Courage In Action


Fear extinguishes leadership; courage ignites leadership. It unites logic and life, propelling authentic action into the past, the present, and the future. Retrospectively, courage quickens authentic renderings of history and resists self-serving justifications or recriminations. It propels us to ask, What really went on? In the present, courage sparks energy, asking, "what is really going on"?

It challenges those who disguise truth to remove the mask and face reality as it is. And courage invites a common exploration of the future. It challenges us to search for common good amongst the diversity of perspectives available to us. It searches for unity without uniformity. Courage takes us through the transition from authenticity as concept to authenticity as embodiment.

Logic Engaging Life

Previously, I gave a logical answer to the question: why be authentic? It is self-contradictory not to be authentic. Conceptually, authenticity is reflexive, true to itself. The logic of authenticity's existence captures even those most forcefully seeking to break its hold. Yet logic divorced from life is form devoid of substance, the principle of life disconnected from life as it is lived. It is courage that energizes life in the world, in real time. Courage cannot be disembodied. Its essential quality is to induce action, engagement, and participation. In part, therefore, it is power, but power linked with noble means and noble ends. We may be able to have courage without leadership; however, there is no leadership without courage.

Courage, like leadership, is an honorific action. It is exalted in public with awards and recognition. While not itself the end, or mission, of action, it is always committed to an end. And just as it is popular to argue that the end justifies the means, it can also be appropriately argued that the means determine the end.

Mahatma Gandhi continually reminded the world that nonviolent ends cannot be achieved by violent means. Neither can authentic ends be achieved by inauthentic means. Means and ends are interdependent, relational, and reciprocal. Thus, courage is not only an honorific term; it is also an ethical term. It invites reflection, not only on the great acts but also on the little acts of everyday life. It invites reflection on both life's appearance and its reality. Logic answers the question of why we should be authentic, with a logical argument; courage lives out the answer.

Courage is central to leadership, but it is virtually ignored in leadership studies and general studies of human action. Modern theorists have given free will a near deathblow. In a world informed by B.F. Skinner, Freud, and Marx, human will has receded into the backwater of consideration, trapped by a pervading determinism. When will was dismissed as irrelevant to human action, courage's dismissal was not far behind. Nevertheless, will and courage refuse to be buried. In leadership studies, their time to be resuscitated as central categories has come.

Defining Courage

A small start can be found in Peter Koestenbaum's Leadership: The Inner Side of Greatness (1991). He defines courage as "action with sustained initiative" (p. 7). However, that is not enough. Courage is a more complex concept. For Aristotle, courage stands between rashness and cowardice. A rash person fears nothing, pretending to be courageous even in the face of disease and war, when fear is appropriate. A cowardly person fears everything, even inappropriate things such as friends and loved ones. Courage is the means between these extremes, and courage is directed toward noble ends (McKeon, 1941, pp.976 – 977). Aristotle's reflections on six expressions of courage form a base for further definitions.

Courage Transcends Ritual

Courage is internal, embodied in our inner beings. It is not reducible to a ritual or habit that prescribes sets of actions based on past performance. Nor does it rest solely on past successes. Ritualized behavior can lull us into a state of sanguinity, dulling our need to reflect afresh and be open to engage the unknown or the novel. When new conditions threaten the security of old patterns, courage may falter in the face of the new, thereby exposing itself as pseudo-courage. A set of tested recipes from the past is no guarantee of courage in the present. Who is more courageous, someone who speaks out on a controversial issue mechanically and predictably, someone who does it for the first time, or someone who reflectively and creatively engages the issue repeatedly, yet freshly?

Courage Transcends Ignorance and Danger

Courage is often confused with danger or is equated with daring and impulse. In this light, it is not the new or the novel that exposes pseudo-courage; it is lack of attention to likely results. Daring looks like courage. But is there not a significant difference between someone who knows the danger and still acts and someone who rushes in blindly? Terry Waite knew the risks when he went to Beirut to negotiate the release of hostages, but he acted anyway. Harriet Tubman knew the risks of helping escaped slaves, but she acted anyway. Action upon reflection adds a seriousness to courage that impulse fails to demonstrate.

Courage Transcends Job
and Institutional Requirements

Awards for courage are often tied to job performance. Firefighters risk their own safety to rescue children. Police endanger themselves in high-speed car chases. Nurses initiate lifesaving procedures on patients, fighting against losing odds. These acts are laudatory and deserve any public gratitude they receive. But is it more courageous for a person to act within a system of supports or to stand alone, challenging an oppressive system? A police officer in a shootout and a student facing armed police in Tiananmen Square both face severe threats to their lives. Both are courageous. But is there not a qualitative difference between a police officer whose job requires and supports courageous action and a protestor who faces a menacing oppressive force without institutional supports?

Courage Transcends Passion

Courageous persons are passionate, but not all passionate persons are courageous.  "Lust," writes Aristotle, "makes adulterers do many daring things." (McKeon, 1941, p. 978). Daring called forth by passion is neither reflective nor necessarily called by a noble end. Courage is more than power, or energy, rooted in feeling. Courage is that which requires both passion and reflection. Is there not a significant difference between the angry person who reflectively directs anger toward constructive ends and the angry person who strikes out to punish without reflection?

Courage Transcends Utility

When ends are negotiable, means are negotiable. Courage questions easy negotiability. A cost-benefit analysis of a noble end undermines courage's resolve. Are not some ends sufficiently noble to be beyond calculation? Is there not a significant difference between the scientist who risks his or her reputation by proposing a new theory and the scientist who calculates the merits of telling the truth against the personal gains from simply keeping quiet? And when there are profound and perplexing conflicts about worthy ends, does not courage resist a trade-off? Courage strives toward a deeper synthesis. Courage is that which challenges utility as the final arbiter of ends.

Courage Transcends Pleasure

Courage, suggests Aristotle, is drawn forth by pain, because "it is harder to face what is painful than to abstain from what is pleasant" (McKeon, 1941, p. 979). Thus, courage is what faces and embraces the most difficult. Even though a mission is noble, the pain associated with embodying that mission may be severe, even life-threatening. Courage gives us the power to withstand that pain.

In the aggregate, then, courage confronts the fear of the new and the unexpected, the fear of eminent danger, the fear of institutional isolation and separation, the fear of unrestrained passion, the fear of negotiable ends, or missions, and the fear of difficulty and pain.

Courage acknowledges, embraces, and transforms primordial fear as it presses sincerity into authenticity. Most profoundly, courage emboldens us to face ourselves, acknowledging that the fear that separates us from each other is our own creation and that unity is possible, in real time and space.

At the same time, courage expresses itself differently in each leadership perspective and each corresponding metaphor for understanding life. When we view life as a gift, courage is that which separates us from fear. It directs us to base our action on the possibility of peace rather than the necessity of violence.

When we view life as a market, courage evaluates our resources. It believes that inner worth transcends externals such as status and success and recognizes that other individuals and groups are deeply connected to us.

When we analyze what is going on in the social body or system, we require courage to to free us from caretaking, impel us to clarify our own interests, and help us be comfortable when we are alone with our inner selves.

When we weigh our relationships from an ups versus downs perspective, it is courage that releases us from controlling our environment and relationships. It challenges us to care and to eschew aggression and deviousness.

When we look at our life journey, courage quickens our openness to others, affirming them and ourselves as partners and responsible contributors to society's well-being.

Finally, when we shape our lives as art, we need courage to acknowledge our contributions and to accept ambiguity and chaos as gifts that will eventually lead to more profound understandings of ourselves and the world.

In all these ways, courage ignites leadership, propelling us beyond our comfort zones, to know, experience, and act on what is really possible and worthy. It is energy to move us on the Action Wheel.

~ Robert Terry


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