It’s an established tradition that every January the leading dictionary publishers from around the world steal a bit of publicity by nominating a ‘word of the year’ – one that captures the essence of the past 12 months.

Well, this year Australia’s Macquarie’s Dictionary bent the rules slightly and chose two words of the year – ‘Me Too’: a term that has become synonymous with stories of women speaking out against the abuses of powerful men.

This month we look at courage in leadership, and what it takes to stand up against established bases of power in service of creating the changes in the world that we all need to see.

Courageous Women

During 2018 it seemed like the news cycle – amongst the chaos – shone a light every week on someone out there in the world standing up to demonstrate what it means to lead with true heart and courage.

And the thing that an apparently huge majority of these courageous leaders had in common? They were women.

There were the women of Hollywood, like Alyssa Milano and Ashley Judd who pushed the #MeToo conversation into the cultural foreground; the Parkland shooting survivors, whose most prominent voice is the 19-year-old Emma Gonzalez; 16-year-old climate change activist Greta Thunberg who stood before the assembled world leaders at the COP24 summit and defiantly held them to account; 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad, who was captured, tortured, and raped by ISIS militants, and has gone on to become a global human rights campaigner; the actor Tashushree Dutta who spoke out about being sexually harassed by a co-star, and in doing so sparked an Indian #MeToo movement.

“I’m not here because I want to be. I’m terrified.”

One of the highest profile – certainly one of the most contentious – examples of courageous female leadership was that of Dr Christine Blasey Ford. In September 2018, Dr Ford testified before a US Senate Judiciary Committee about her alleged sexual assault by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

The hearings were televised live around the world and became a huge talking point in mainstream news and on social media. The most traumatic moment of Dr Ford’s life was being scrutinized, as was her honesty, her credibility, her ‘likability’.  Every part of her was under the microscope. And for what? As Dr Ford herself said at the beginning of her testimony: “I’m not here because I want to be. I’m terrified.”

It was in this acknowledgment of her terror that Dr Ford gave voice to a new, evolving understanding of what it is to be a courageous leader. A courageous leader isn’t fearless, gung-ho, and powered by bravado.

Given that one of her most outspoken critics was the current president of the United States, it’s ironic that the model of courage demonstrated by Dr Ford was articulated over 70 years ago by former president Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.”

Facing Down Fear

For Dr Ford, and for all the women of courage who stepped up as leaders in 2018, doing so meant facing down fear.

  • Alyssa Milano and Ashley Judd knew that their careers would be over when they spoke out;
  • Emma Gonzalez has been subjected to astonishing amounts of personal abuse and threats;
  • Greta Thunberg stood before the world’s media and most powerful people despite having described herself as being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, O.C.D, and selective mutism;
  • Nadia Murad has spoken of the desire to simply forget her trauma, but instead chose to use it as energy in her crusade;
  • Tashushree Dutta shared her story in a culture where the historic attitude of victim blaming and shaming means that an estimated 99% of sexual assault cases go unreported.

Yet they all faced this fear because there was something more important to them. Their courage was not the absence of fear, but the willingness to be afraid whilst speaking their truth and – crucially – the truth of others.

Is Courage an Intrinsically Feminine Quality?

Is it merely a coincidence that this new generation of courageous leaders seems to be largely female? Maybe not.

Researchers from the University of Chicago researched the rates of heroism amongst women and men related to a wide variety of activities. These included helping to save the lives of Jews during the Holocaust, joining the Peace Corps, donating a kidney, volunteering for overseas service with Doctors of the World, and winning Carnegie Medals.

In all but the last category women disproportionately outnumbered men. Women were found to donate about 60% of all kidneys even though they only make up about 51% of the population.

Women also were majority recipients of the Righteous Among Nations award for people who lent a hand during the Holocaust, and disproportionately well-represented among volunteer organizations.

It seems like – in a world where the term ‘man up’ can be used to call someone forth into their strength, and where men are told to ‘stop being a girl’ when they waver – courage is as feminine as it gets.

Why might this be? Well, perhaps the source of this excess of female courage has its roots in the same stereotypes that brought us ‘man up’.

In the same way that young boys are praised and affirmed for being bold, daring and unemotional, girls are rewarded for being sensitive and empathic – the ability to understand and share the feelings of others.

A necessary pre-requisite for empathy is Emotional Intelligence (EI) – the ability to be aware of and skillfully express one’s own emotions. And again, most research suggests that women display higher levels of EI than men.

Qualities that Fuel Courage

If we are proposing that courage is about taking purposeful action even in the presence of fear, shame, or anxiety, then to do this requires that an individual can identify these feelings in the first place. Without this it is not purposeful action, it is unconscious reaction.

Furthermore, if we are proposing that the purpose that fuels truly courageous leadership is serving and advocating for others, then this requires that one can truly understand and appreciate the suffering and the need of those others.

From this perspective it’s not that courageous leadership is a ‘feminine’ quality, rather that it is made possible by certain traits that our society affirms in women more than in men – empathy and Emotional Intelligence.

The next generation of courageous leaders – male and female – will need to develop these qualities, and be willing to lean into them, even when it is painful.

This is where the hard work of leadership takes place – not in the boardroom or the battlefield, but in the heart of the leader, willing to take their fear with them as they do what matters.

As the social activist Maggie Kuhn said, 

“Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.”

Share This