What does it mean to be courageous…? Does it differ across cultures? Becky Robinson, founder and social media expert for authors at Weaving Influence, organized a webinar to explore the different cultural expressions of Courageous Leadership and Followership between the United States and Asia. “We want to create a world that works for all.” Dare you speak truth to power? A conversation with Bill Treasurer, Ira Chaleff, John Graham and Robert Yeo. A cross-cultural exploration.
What is courage?
First, let’s explore what courage is. Here’s the famous quote by Nelson Mandela: “I learned that courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
Bill Treasurer, Chief Encouragement Officer at Giant Leap Consulting (and author of three books about Courageous Leadership) explains: “Fear has a biological basis in the brain: it is associated with the amygdala. It’s the fear button in your brain. It’s your self-preservation, and it’s constantly on. But brain research suggests that there’s a biological basis for courage as well. Courage and fear are common for humans around the world.
Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it Click To Tweet
Cross-culturally, stories that resonate the most, often involve fear and courage. The heroes start out feeling fearful. Courage is acting despite the fact that you are afraid. It’s a high-emotion arousal state. When you are in a courageous moment, you are extending yourself beyond your comfort zone, and you’re putting your skin in: there’s something at risk for you. You’re vulnerable.”
Speak up to Power
The idea of speaking truth to Power, to authority figures, requires courage in all cultures. This is something we all have in common. So how’s courage in Singapore? Robert Yeo, CEO of Singapore Training and Development (STADA) and a member of the Learning Innovation Laboratory (LILA) at Harvard Graduate School of Education: “The people from Singapore are very global citizens. English is our first language and as a small state, we have to connect to the world. We have a lot of cultural diversity. It takes courage to speak up. We also feel that it can be courageous not to speak truthfully because we understand the consequences of our speech, due to the diversity of cultures. We don’t want to upset other cultures.
But in business we tend to speak up. In Asia most business relationships are based on trust and respect – as opposed to the Western relationship of the “business transaction” alone. Due to that fact, I think that we Asians tend to be courageous and tell our business partners respectfully but honestly that something is wrong for instance – because we value the relationship, and we respect them. If you are acting from a “transaction” mindset – you may not want to speak up because it might jeopardize the transaction if the other person doesn’t take it too well.”
Ira Chaleff, one of the top 100 “Best Minds on Leadership” according to Leadership Excellence magazine, is the author of “The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To and For Our Leaders”. “Courageous followers need to speak up to authority figures. But it depends on the power distance whether or how you do so. In some countries, you see a high power distance where power is very unevenly distributed, and the followers may be very dependent on the authority figure. A low power distance relationship is more interdependent.
According to the theory, Asian cultures are supposed to have a higher power distance, and American and Australian would be lower. But I find that many clients in the USA still have quite some power distance… Do you speak up to your boss from your cubicle? While in India, a so-called high power distance culture, I’ve seen employees who found a culturally acceptable way of speaking truth to power.
So I’ve learned that whatever culture you are in, you need a degree of courage to speak truth to power. And you need to respect the norms of the culture while doing so.
Speaking truth to power requires courage everywhere Click To Tweet
Last but not least, there are some industries where it can be disastrous not to speak up, for instance, nuclear power plants. They train their subordinates to transcend their cultural upbringing if necessary, through role-playing and so on. We see this happen in hospitals as well. Hospital staff in the USA increasingly come from different cultures, and each staff member needs to speak up for the benefit of the patient, whether they are the surgeon or a nurse, whatever their position is. There are ways in each culture to speak truth to authority.”
Purpose fuels courage
John Graham is President of the Giraffe Heroes Project, whose mission is to find real people acting with extraordinary courage on a range of issues and help them tell their stories to millions of others.
“Let me share three brief stories of courage. A co-founder of a law firm in Asia represented farmers whose land was polluted by the Singapore government. She spent 47 days in jail and upon her release, she took up the case again. Then there is this guy in India who fought against companies destroying the woods in the Himalaya, hugging the trees while the chainsaw men were approaching. A Cambodian girl was brought up in a brothel and escaped after years of rape. She started offering food and freedom to other girls in the same brothel: her organization rescued 6,000 girls.
They are part of 1300 people who stuck their necks out and who joined the Giraffe Heroes Project. We started in the USA so most are Americans up to date, but so far, 110 non-Americans were awarded and 33 of them are Asians. There are no Giraffe Heroes in China because that country has blocked the project, but we don’t count heroes from Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and Singapore either. That’s not because those people are not courageous! It’s because they tend to have a different style and their actions may not be recognized as courageous. In-your-face actions might make people uncomfortable in Confucianist cultures.
An example: We from the USA were labeling people “heroes” who were working on hot-button issues such as violence against women in India. Our Indian partners were picking people who were quietly working on the inside to change government institutions – often at great bureaucratic risk. Heroism is filtered by cultural norms.
So, what makes people act courageously? Almost universally it takes two steps: First, you increase your skills and tools – this reduces risks anyway. Second, you increase your courage by anger, adrenaline, desperation or guilt. But these are short-term emotions and they will eventually make you burn-out.
The deeper motivation for courage is meaning. What courageous people do, satisfies their deep conviction about the right actions and the meaning of their acts. When you’re doing something meaningful – you feel great. And when you are afraid, you see the risk as the price you have to pay to achieve your purpose. It’s just a road block. The meaning, the purpose, makes it more worth to take that risk. This fuels your courage. Courageous people don’t see the risk in isolation – it’s a part of their path to the purpose… Look at Mandela. The risk of jail and even death is perceived differently when you’re on a mission to end apartheid peacefully. It’s the meaning that makes the difference.”
- What’s the situation in your work or life that you need courage for the most?
- What is the mission or meaning that fuels your courage? What makes it worth to transcend your fear?
- What are you afraid of? Dare you speak truth to power?
- Do you acknowledge other people’s courage to speak up to you?
- How do you assess your workplace culture’s power distance?
Copyright © Marcella Bremer 2015. All rights reserved.
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Marcella Bremer co-founded this Leadership & Change Blog and OCAI-online.com. She’s an author and culture & change consultant.