On courage and foolhardiness

A young friend recently faced a number of less than easy options regarding his employment and his career and our discussion turned to behaviour in the face of uncertainty and fears:

The fundamental characteristic of courage in actions is that the action remains central and fear is then the constraint or barrier to action which must be subordinated. I have heard it said that courage lies in confronting fear or defeating fear but this, I think, misses the central point. The focus of courage is on the actions not on the fears. Whatever purposeful action has been decided proceeds even though fear exists. Defeating the fear is not the focus where the action then becomes secondary or merely a by-product.

A brave action by one person who perceives fear in a particular situation may not be particularly brave for someone else who does not perceive the same level of fear. Whenever an outcome is uncertain there is risk. The level and type of risk, if realised, may or may not lead to a perception of threat and the accompanying fear that that entails. The distinction between a brave person and a foolhardy one then becomes one of discernment and judgment of risk and not the level of fear or the level of risk. Both may perceive threat and experience fear. The brave action is one where the risk and the probability of a satisfactory outcome have been judged prior to any action. Whether the judgment is sound or poor is also irrelevant to bravery. Bravery is unconnected with the level of risk but requires that the risk has actually been weighed. Risks may be high or low with either brave or reckless actions. A foolhardy action is not necessarily without fear; it is one devoid of judgment. It is the absence of judgment or ignoring judgment or wilful misjudgement and not the perceived level of risk which injects the “fool” into the foolhardy.

Aristotle considered courage to be the median position of a human virtue measured on a scale ranging from cowardice – as a deficit of courage – at one end to foolhardiness or recklessness – as an over-abundance of courage – at the other. This is not, I think, a valid scale because all these three descriptions of the human condition – courage, cowardice and foolhardiness – do not lie in the same linear dimension.

Courage and cowardice lie on a line linking fear and action. At one end, for courage, action subordinates fear whereas at the other end, for cowardice, fear dominates action.

Courage and foolhardiness are linked on a quite different line, that of judgment. At one end, the foolhardy action ignores, or has no judgment of risk and at the other end a courageous action has weighed the risk and decided to continue. 

Extracted and adapted from Chapter 7:  Essence of a Manager


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