I learn so much when I’m invited to be a speaker by organisations and institutions.  Since I began speaking and training, common questions arise across international borders and cultures.  “Wendy, tell us how to become morally courageous in the moment”.  On reflection, it surprises me that there’s an expectation that invoking and nurturing moral courageousness will only require a few articulated points.  I wish it was that easy!  The ability to act on Moral courage begins with a whisper. The whispers then grow thunderous with experience, practice and time if you’re patient enough to explore it.

Reflecting on the ignition for my own morally courageous actions, I believe the fuel was lit in my childhood. When I look back on my childhood, two things stand out. Firstly, I was insanely curious. My parents were driven to distraction trying to manage my curiosity which often resulted in generalised disruption. Aged three, getting lost having cycled off on my tricycle to go shopping for a bicycle for my brother; gleefully running from escalator to escalator pushing the big red button that read STOP to see what would happen; pushing over the 1960s porcelain shop mannequins to test their responses. You get the picture, right? It turns out via research that curiosity, an openness to experience, is directly related to courageous action.  Conversely, an internal locus of control was found to be negatively correlated with moral courage.

The second thing is that very early on in my life, aged just ten, I became parentified. One of my parents suddenly and dramatically left the family to engage in an extra marital affair. The other had a nervous breakdown. I recall changes occurring within me on a visceral, psychological and physiological level. Forced to look outside of myself and to care for someone else, the seed for altruism, resilience and courage had been planted.

This sense is backed up by science, which supports the relationship between altruism and suffering, and resilience and post traumatic growth. Some may call this grit or resilience. I call it anti fragility. Whilst the resilient are able to resist shocks and stay the same; the anti fragile get better through pivoting instead of standing still. It is acknowledged that experiences such as mine as a ten year old lead to altruistic action: a strengthening of the self, a more positive orientation toward people, empathy and a belief in one’s personal responsibility for others’ welfare. See below a quote from Tedeschi et al. (1998) who identified compassion and altruism as likely aspects of post traumatic growth.

Resilience/Grit/Anti Fragility is positively related to behavioural social courage and those that have it have a tendency to work through difficulties despite personal risks , including the risk of failure. Additionally, having these attributes is described as having a predisposition toward perseverance and passion for long-term goals (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews,& Kelly, 2007). People high in grit are more likely to persist through perceived risks in the interest of accomplishing longer-term goals.

I believe my traumatic childhood experience played a significant part in framing the creation of my company, SpeakOut SpeakUp Ltd, post blowing the whistle and my eleven year battle to secure justice, whilst living in abject poverty. SpeakOut SpeakUp and the training for Courageous Conversations became what’s recognised as a “survivor mission”, driven by my deep commitment to enabling and empowering people to be able to speak and listen up in the nascent stage and before a whistleblower is necessitated.

This ‘survivor mission’, driven by altruism requires a focus beyond the self. The experiences that are conducive to ‘altruism borne out of suffering’ overlap with and also extend beyond factors that have been identified as promoting resilience. One of those factors is moral courage.

Through ‘altruism borne out of suffering‘, trauma can be transformed not only into a personal asset, but into a community asset

The correlation between grit and courage is that high-grit and proactive individuals may be more likely to judge their psychological resources sufficient to withstand any adverse consequences of courageous actions because they’ve been in high stake contexts in the past.

Unfortunately, like anything worthwhile, courage, specifically moral courage doesn’t magically manifest itself, ‘in the moment’. As demonstrated in my story, you have to rumble with vulnerability and humility to get to courage.

Unlike physical courage, where individuals instinctively rush into a burning fire to save others, moral courage requires reflection, cognitive processing, and consideration of the cost and benefit trade offs. Moral courage is a struggle between responsibility to an external power and one’s conscience.  I’d like to suggest that is why so many Whistleblowers feel they are alone and on their own in deciding to speak up; that’s because difficult decision making requires courage and most individuals choose to hold their own counsel in that moment.

Individuals who have hard-won their moral courage through ‘altruism borne out of suffering’, partnered with a “felt responsibility” have already been required to have the resolve to act even when it is not comfortable or self-serving to do so. Add anger at injustice, unfairness, or violations of human rights, stir in the ability to anticipate regret and the impetus to act courageously has been invoked and fuelled. This doesn’t mean that everyone needs to experience suffering to act courageously, although studies indicate that it’s a significant determinant.

Reading this blog may inspire you but it’s action that’s the hallmark of true change and we learn from doing. Moral Courage develops from the rope of experience that is thrown to us – grab that rope. We cannot vow to become courageous and resilient through mere words. Stop optimising for today and tomorrow and start playing the long game. I know it’s hard to play the long game when there is a perceived visible negative as the first step. You have to be willing to look vulnerable, wrong and even foolish in the short term to become a good leader in the long term.

  • Life throws you little moral challenges.  Use them so that you’re prepared for the bigger moral challenges of life.
  • Risk utter embarrassment (not just a “safe failure” in contrived brainstorming sessions).  This may just be the type of failure needed to bring on the type of success that we actually need.
  • Tether humility to your power.
  • Start small – move out of your comfort zone and toward the center of the spectrum.
  • Become present orientated.
  • Become curious, ask questions.
  • Don’t run from tension.
  • Apologise for your mistakes.
  • Assert your own uniqueness.
  • When you’re listening to someone, consider your stance: make sure it is open, with your shoulders square to the person you are speaking to and making eye contact.
  • Embrace uncertainty. Some of the most beautiful chapters in our lives won’t have a title until much later.

Finally, would you agree that if you needed to learn accounting, you would take an accounting class or if you become a parent you would pick up a book and read about it?We talk to experts, we learn from our mistakes, we update our knowledge in order to grow.  But when it comes to being a morally courageous person, we think it’s something we’re just supposed to know, we’re just supposed to know what to do, without the benefit of training, effort or growth.

So, get in touch…

Courageous Conversation training creates the ability to skillfully speak and listen up to act on one’s values and wisdom in the face of normal fear and discomfort from situational pressure. The cognitive behavioural therapy methodology for Courageous Conversations is underpinned by psychological research and is a proven evidence -based model to help employees, executives and teams to increase collaboration and organisational impact.

Since this is my last blog of 2018, please accept my thanks for reading my blog, for reaching out, for leaning in.

with best wishes for a festive season of joy, peace and gratitude.
Till 2019!