Courage. Some equate courage with those who make the ultimate sacrifice. I do not. That is valour. Courage is different. It’s a quality of mind that enables one to confront fear with calm focus and resolve, like getting up every day with the determination to do better. Trying to understand and reconcile beliefs that run contrary to our own is my definition of courageous learning. I see it as mental toughness – the willingness to take calculated risks and dare to be different in the face of conventional wisdom and the unreasonable expectations of others.
Since most leaders tend to confuse courage with bravery, they don’t see it as a necessary core value in today’s workplace. But it is. Even in a thesaurus, these words are often interchangeable. Philosophically, they have quite different meanings. Courage involves the presence of fear and the decision to carry on despite it; bravery does not – it’s an inherent characteristic that manifests itself as second nature, almost effortless, in those who possess it. Courage is a matter of choice; bravery is an instinctive behaviour.
Walt Disney said all our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them. As leaders, we must inspire people to be courageous, not brave. As role models worthy of our station, we must show them how and why the choices they make are necessary to survive and thrive in an increasingly volatile, complex, unpredictable world. Without the courage to learn, persevere and change in the face of uncertainty and adversity, we cannot become what we were otherwise innately gifted to be. Not everyone can be brave but we can all have the courage of our convictions.
Thinking. The ability to think separates us from all other living creatures. How we think determines who we are and what we become. Independent or contrarian thinking – a frequent focus of my research and teaching – is the ability to utilize our full mental capabilities to think for ourselves rather than relying solely on the wisdom of others to prescribe solutions to our problems. This way of thinking isn’t about winning arguments (that is the art of negotiating), rather it’s about finding truths. It’s understanding what impairs our reasoning and knowing why we’re usually wrong (which is far more often than we like to believe).
While thinking happens naturally, it’s also a skill that can be strengthened – much like a muscle. It demands an awareness of our subliminal biases and the need for rigorous practice to build our capacity to ask good questions in the face of misinformation. Over the past five decades, I’ve developed different courses on how we can do this. My first effort (way back in 1969) was entitled The Creative Genius Within – we all have one although, too often, we fail to utilize it. This initial learning adventure was offered long before neuroscientists declared the 90’s as “the decade of the brain,” although those discoveries greatly enriched our understanding of how we actually do think. Humankind conquered outer space in the sixties but has yet to fully comprehend the mystery of our inner space.
The ability to think differently is the bedrock of human knowledge. Scientists and philosophers alike have struggled throughout history to determine what we know to be true and what we don’t (but think we do). Logical fallacies and errors in judgement are incredibly common in everyday life. Yet we’re largely unaware of how they affect our decisions and potentially harm our lives, sometimes in profound ways. For example, we rarely think about how our beliefs dictate our choices. We just act on them in ignorance. We are so enamored with what we believe we know that we fabricate convenient theories to explain our behaviour while ignoring the blind spots that determine it. (The reaction of some to the pandemic doesn’t amaze me; it’s simply one telling aspect of the human condiiton.) If, however, we really think about what impairs our ability to reason, it’s a conundrum that can be resolved. And doing so will change your life.
Understanding. There is a difference between knowing something and understanding it. Mortimer Adler said: “The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it, usually does not know what he thinks.” When you understand something, you can put it in words a 12 year old will likewise understand. If you can’t explain what you think you know, without complicated words or vague jargon, there are gaps and limitations in your comprehension. Some put on a good show and dazzle us with their seemingly brilliant answers. Under scrutiny however, it’s obvious they can’t explain what they don’t really understand themselves. They possess, and get by on, what is called the illusion of knowledge. Einstein may have said it best: “Any fool can know. The point is to understand.”
The ultimate test of our knowledge is the ability to enable someone else to understand. So, when you don’t understand what someone is trying to explain, tell them that. And start asking a lot of naive questions. That’s how we started learning when we were first able to speak. The objective was to eliminate mystery and confusion. Many have forgotten how to do that. Because, as adults, the presumption is we’re supposed to know. Adopt a beginner’s mind. Start with “why?” or “how?” and see where that takes you. True experts understand their limitations. When they find themselves beyond their arena of expertise, they just keep quiet or unapologetically say, “I don’t know.” Without an understanding of what truly matters, we walk lame to the end of our lives.
Self-promotion. In today’s workplace, creating a positive perception of your contributions is actually more important than doing good work. Because those in charge are usually too busy to notice, good work often goes unrecognized. Without a degree of artful self-promotion, you’re unlikely to get credit for your ideas and, in consequence, have less influence than you likely desire or deserve. Self-promotion is managing the impressions others form when they don’t know who you are. Like it or not, it’s the only assured way to get ahead in any highly competitive arena. For those who aren’t natural self-promoters, that notion is more than uncomfortable, it’s actually quite scary
Our accomplishments don’t speak for themselves. They need a promoter. Opportunity falls to the best known, not necessarily the best. If you can’t promote yourself, who will? Talking about our achievements is culturally stigmatized. It’s bragging. Rethink how you feel about self-promotion – it’s not bragging if it’s based on facts and done intelligently and with integrity. The first rule of artful reputation management is to be visible. Send your boss an email about what you accomplished this week, assuming your work did create value and advanced the mission of your organization. Be succinct and factual, not flowery or self-congratulatory. (And save those emails for your annual review.)