Why 2015 needs to be the year of Courage. And how we can make it happen

It’s now three weeks since the Paris shootings. As the shock recedes, let’s not forget the acts of integrity, honesty and humanity that showed us the true nature of courage: Let’s remember Lassana Bathily, the 24 yr old Muslim shop assistant who led 15 people to safety in the freezer of a kosher deli while hostages were held at gunpoint upstairs. Let’s remember the family of murdered police officer Ahmed Merabet, who within hours of his death appealed: “…don’t burn mosques or synagogues. You are attacking people. It won’t bring our dead back and it won’t appease the families.” And let’s remember the three million people, and leaders from 44 countries, who took to the streets to show their determination to live beyond fear. 2015 cries out for such acts of courage, and memory, from all of us. Let’s make it the year of courage.

 

As you head into 2015 let me ask you this: Deep down, do you want to just survive this year — or do you want to really live? Do you want to just get by — or would you really like to grow? Do you want to just make it through — or would you really, deep down, like it to be a creative, productive year, a year to remember, for all the right reasons?

 

Fear helps us survive, but only courage makes us grow

When fear hits hard our first response is usually to focus on survival. On getting through. It’s the classic fear response: The adrenalin flows, the heart races, the vision narrows and our mind zooms in on the details, closing down the seemingly distracting big picture to focus exclusively on getting through the here and now.

And it works. During traffic accidents and extreme and immediate threat ‘fear or flight’ undoubtedly pulls us through. We’d be dead without it. But — when this kind of response begins to dominate our worldview, closing us down to increased openness, greater inclusion and trust, and broader, stronger control — that is when we need to beware.

When fear seems to start dominating our responses and shrinking our world is exactly when we need to find the courage to trust more, to think above and beyond fear — to embrace courage, and create a larger, more visionary sense of what’s possible.

As the public reaction to the Paris shootings show, in fearful circumstances courage is not a luxury, a ‘choice’ or an ‘option’ — it is a necessity. As essential to our growth as food, freedom and the space to thrive. Fear shrinks our world. The three million people who spread out across the streets of France refused to shrink. They chose to assert themselves, to take up their space. They refused to get smaller.

Don’t just survive — strive

So fear really isn’t the best response to the Paris shootings. That’s exactly what the terrorists want. And it’s exactly what will stop us thinking and listening. Now is the time to think bigger than survival. To grow our vision, not shrink it. All the big challenges we face in 2015 – the narrowing window of opportunity on climate change, the growing tide of terrorism – all touch on deep, intimate fears. But they all demand not fear as a response but thought, vision, imagination, integrity. In short, they demand courage.

It’s not easy, but we can do it! So let’s make 2015 the year of courage. For all of us. The courage to strive, not survive. To become better, not just to be. To become ourselves. Wholly. To live on our terms.

Courage is not just for Christmas

A friend asked me recently if I had any New Year’s Resolutions. “No, I don’t ‘do’ New Year’s Resolutions,” I answered. They were surprised. “You spend your whole life encouraging people to improve! I thought New Year’s Resolutions would be right up your street.”

I realized my objections were about time. New Year’s Resolutions tend to reassure us that making courageous decisions is a once-a-year experience. We do it briefly for a week at the end of January, and that’s it. But as the Paris shootings show, courage is not just for Christmas. For all of us, for humanity itself, courage is an ongoing process. We must watch our fears and live beyond them, not just once a year. But every year. Every day. Every moment.

Courage is moment-by-moment awareness

Because whilst courage is to be found in the space and breadth of long-term thinking and strategy, it lives in the moment too — and that’s often when it becomes real to us. In the strangers we instinctively reach out to help during a crisis. In the humane voice we manage to find in inhuman circumstances. In the overwhelming empathy we feel in the face of cruelty and injustice.

Yes, courage is there in the grand, historic acts (the mountain scaled, the paradigm shifted) but these are built on the daily, small-scale victories we achieve by being empathetic, aware and direct (the unreasonable demand politely refused; the difficult question clearly asked.) These small acts of integrity reveal courage as a never-ending process. A vocation we continuously work on. A labor of love.

Endless compromise takes energy. Courage gives energy

This moment-by-moment integrity strengthens us. Remember: Every time we give away our power, every time we make a small compromise despite a nagging worry in our stomachs – it makes us smaller. It shrinks our world. It saps our energy. Courage gives us energy and makes us grow. It gives us the space and time to think long-term, with vision and values. And the guts and resolution to go beyond fear in the heat of the moment, and stay true to those values.

Courage is the big picture and the killer detail

Courage delivers leadership and the power to decide the big things. But it is earned through continuously negotiating the small things, without fear. We build courage brick-by-brick. Hour-by-hour. Moment-by-moment. Until suddenly – maybe without even noticing it – we are standing in a stronger, larger, more open place. A place everyone wants to be. A better world. Let’s do it. Let’s make 2015 the year of courage.

So, how can we find courage? How can we create it – day by day?

To discover your courage – know what you’re afraid of

I like the English term for Nyårslöftet – New Year’s Resolution. Resolution means being decisive (to resolve to do something.) But it also means clarity, seeing things clearly (as in a high-resolution picture.) To understand courage you have to see fear clearly. As I’ve shared with leaders for over 10 years now, the secret of uncovering your courage lies in clarifying what it is you are afraid of.

What would a courageous 2015 look like to you?

So what life do you want to create for yourself in 2015? Could you picture that life? I’m going to share an exercise that lets you do that, and helps you identify the often unconscious fears that stand in your way. You’ll need to do a little writing.

Close your eyes and imagine going to sleep. Now imagine sleeping deeply. When you wake up you realize immediately that something is different. What? Well, a miracle has happened. All – yes all – your problems have disappeared. Just relax, enjoy and let yourself feel that for a while. Now visualize all the things you’d do on this miraculous, day – moment by moment, hour by hour. Imagine living your life exactly as you ‘d want to. No fears. No problems. Picture it. What would you do?

OK, open your eyes and answer the following questions. Take your time. Don’t rush from one question to the next.

1. What was it that made you first realize a miracle had taken place? (What did you notice straightaway was different?)

2. What problems disappeared in your miracle day? Write a list of them.

3. Which of these problems do you think are internal / inside you?

4. Which come from your surroundings or environment?

5. Which do you think you could work on solving?

6. Which do you most want to work on solving?

If you look at your list from Question 2 you’ll probably find that all the problems are connected to a fear. What you have done here is sketched a fear atlas for the coming year – an analysis of your current fears. The answer to Question 1 could show you your most pressing anxiety. The answer to question 6 could show you which fear you are already near solving. You probably already know the answers to how to solve them – deep down. But you may never have had the courage to directly identify them before. That’s half the battle. So start by addressing the top three problems or obstacles you have revealed. Think about solutions. How frightening would it really be to find solutions for these? Over the coming year keep your picture of your miraculous fear-free day firmly in mind. Stay mindful and aware of the fears you identified too. Having a clear picture of a more courageous life in your mind’s eye, and being more aware of the fears you carry that prevent this — both will help you move forward towards a more courageous 2015.

Never underestimate your own power in 2015: You CAN make the difference

Lassana Bathily, who is now believed to have saved up to 15 lives in the Paris supermarket siege, is not alone. On 22 May 2013 Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, a middle-aged mother of two, was on a 53 bus passing the south London suburb of Woolwich. Suddenly she saw a body lying in a pool of blood in the middle of the road next to a crashed car. Trained as a first aider she jumped off to see if she could help.

As she approached the heavily bleeding victim she saw a man standing over him with a revolver in one hand and a bloody meat cleaver in the other. “I didn’t really feel anything. I was not scared, he was not drunk, he was not on drugs. He was normal. I could speak to him and he wanted to speak and that’s what we did, ” she said.

Loyau-Kennett learnt that the man with the cleaver had recently, ardently embraced islamism. He and his accomplice, another islamist, had driven their car at 40 mph into off-duty soldier Lee Rigby, then jumped out and stabbed and hacked at him repeatedly with knives and the cleaver as he lay on the ground. “’He was a British solider, he’s killed Muslim women and children in Iraq and Afghanistan’,” the murderer told Loyau-Kennett. “He was furious about the British army being over there,” she said.

She then talked to the man’s accomplice. “I asked him if he wanted to give me the knife he was holding, but I didn’t want to say the word. He didn’t agree and I asked: ‘Do you want to carry on?’ He said: ‘No, no, no.’ I didn’t want to upset him, then the first killer came back. I asked him what he wanted to do next. At that point, there were so many people around that I didn’t want him to get scared or agitated. I kept talking to him to keep him occupied. Then I saw my bus was moving and I knew that the police would arrive very soon. I asked him if there was anything else I could do for him because my bus was about to leave. He said no.”

10 seconds later the police arrived and the two men were arrested. Witnesses are convinced that the death toll from the incident would have been far, far higher if Loyau-Kennett had not stopped and engaged the two men in conversation.

Empathy is stronger than violence

Ingrid Loyau-Kennett’s behavior here is a masterclass in courage. But, as I research more about courage, not as uncommon as you’d think. Key to Loyau-Kennett’s astonishing success was her ability to keep engaging the killers in conversation, her remarkably tough, persistent empathy. If ever people wanted an example of how much courage genuine empathy can demand — here it is.

Asking questions is often the answer

Asking difficult but reasonable questions is often at the heart of courage. Keeping one eye on a dying man bleeding profusely, Loyau-Kennett kept asking the armed killers questions, kept empathy flowing — he wanted to speak and that’s what we did… I asked him what he wanted to do next… I asked him if there was anything else I could do.

Keep a careful eye on your reactions

Loyau-Kennett also kept a careful eye on her own reactions throughout, not allowing herself to shrink, insisting on empathy and dialogue.

People who frighten us are normally afraid themselves

Throughout it all she kept the courage to see these frightened humans for what they are: frightened humans. Just that. Nothing more normal. Nothing more dangerous. When dealing with frightening people always remind yourself that often they are frightened too. And as they already ‘own’ fear, reacting to them with more fear will be entirely nonproductive. Stay calm and empathetic. We can see how effective this is — at one point Loyau-Kennett is so much in control she is reassuring the murderer: I didn’t want him to get scared or agitated.

Ingrid Loyau-Kennett’s actions, together with the story of Lassana Bathily, are essential reminders, as we enter a frightening year, of the power of human courage — of seeing people, no matter how frightening or frightened – as, still, people. Of refusing to shrink. Of refusing to bow to fear. Of insisting on dialogue and finding out what these people are really scared of, no matter what the risk. Both Lassana Bathily in Paris and Ingrid Loyau-Kennett in London refused to distance themselves from the essential humanity of the people near them — the first, victims; the second, killers. And through this courage, they both saved lives.

Remember in 2015 that you too have power. You too can make a difference. Don’t be afraid to reach out. To ask questions. To keep asking questions, no matter how frightening the situation may seem. Scared people can frighten us. But ultimately they are just that – scared people. Talk to them. Find out what they’re scared of.

You could be saving a life. You could be saving your own.

You could be creating new space to grow. It’s scary, yes. But courage will make you grow,. Courage will give you that space. Every single time.

Until next time – have a courageous 2015!

All the best,

//Margareta