Feel the fear

Karen Middleton believes that courage is a crucial characteristic for anyone aspiring to be a great leader

Feel the fear: CEO Karen Middleton

I want to talk about courage. This is one of the CSP staff’s core values and I think it is critical to being a leader. Courage is being able to do something that frightens you – it’s more than stretching your comfort zone, it really is doing something you could fail at and which makes you exceptionally vulnerable. It might involve taking quite a public stand or, equally, it might be about quietly having another go and coming back for more.

For me, courage is very much linked to doing the right thing and definitely has a moral edge to it. It is linked to integrity and is about acting rightly in the face of opposition, shame, discouragement or personal loss. 

For many clinicians, the first experience of displaying courage professionally is when speaking up for patients and giving voice. One of my earliest memories of this was on an orthopaedic ward round when the surgeon asked an openly gay patient waiting for a hip replacement whether he was HIV positive (this was in the 1990s) and the ward sister intervened and said ‘Perhaps the patient would like to know if you are HIV positive’. Point made. 

That ward sister inspired me and when I led a review of disability services in the community and listened to what people really wanted from these services, I found the courage to say what needed to be said, knowing it wasn’t going to be popular, at my first attendance at an Executive Board meeting.

When you are in a position of power, having courage to speak up is much easier than when the balance of power is not in your favour. And when it is not in your favour, it is often called ‘speaking truth to power’. Of course, it can be extremely potent – take Gina Rinehart (Greta Thunberg), the school-girl speaking out about climate change. 

In management, I have had numerous occasions when I have had to find the courage to do or say the right thing. (And many when I did not find that courage, but we are all human!) What I have learnt is that, even if you don’t get the desired outcome, you do feel better having tried.

And then there is the not-so-public demonstration of courage: applying for a job that is definitely a stretch, persisting in trying to solve a problem when it would be much easier to walk away, or coming into work when you are feeling anxious and fragile yourself. 

Lastly, the act of courage might be not to do or say anything at all. It might be having the courage to stop, sit and listen.

Remember that if you witness an act of courage, that person has felt or is feeling terror, so do say something positive to them, whatever the outcome. Help them to feel less alone.

My Mum is a John Wayne fan (Google if you don’t know who he is) and he said ‘Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway’. Our patients have to do this everyday – we can too.. 

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