Can you learn to be courageous? More to the point, can you learn to control fear? Yes, you can. Learning to be courageous has a great deal to do with being prepared. When you have analyzed the “fight or flight” instinct as it relates to the situations you might face, you are much less likely to make a snap decision based on emotion, instead tapping into the wellspring of courage that all people possess. In a way, physical courage is the easiest to understand. We can see the danger being faced, and are able to prepare for it. We can physically prepare, mentally rehearse our response, hone our skills, and work in a team with others. This is applicable to battle scenarios, emergency situations, or even on the sports field. That preparation is key to suppressing the fear response.
When Air Force Academy graduate, former fighter pilot, and USAir Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed USAir Flight 1549 in the Hudson, he said in an interview with 60 Minutes that moments before the crash were “the worst sickening, pit-of-your-stomach, falling-through-the-floor feeling” that he had ever experienced. However, he and his crew had practiced emergency landings with such diligence, that they were able to put that fear aside and skillfully control the emergency landing. His team saved the lives of everyone on board the flight because they didn’t succumb to fear. Instead, they controlled their fear.
To paraphrasing a chief master sergeant that I served with during my Air Force career, “Few rise to the occasion in combat. Rather, they sink to the level of their training.” The way the military values training, especially the repetition of so-called “perishable skills”, is an indicator of the value of preparation. Soldiers expect to face danger, and prepare themselves against fleeing from it. The procedures are rehearsed over and over again until it becomes second nature.
I think courage comes from a well within our Human Spirit. It stems from more than mere biology, since we are more than mere flesh and bone. If humans were only biological machines, would there be an ability to create beauty, love, or be able to discern truth from lies? Biology certainly plays a role in who we are – after all, we are not disembodied spirits – but it cannot offer the entire answer. Courage, like other Universal Human Goods, comes from both our biology and our human spirit.
A sense of duty and fraternal love contributes to courage, as does the nearly universal human social need to be accepted among a social group. Soldiers who exhibit courage in combat situations most often report that they were “just doing their jobs” and “didn’t want to let their teammates down.” We call that “duty” and “loyalty”, these qualities are among the most prized of human virtues.
People are willing to endure considerable hardship when they know that others are depending upon them. When that social pressure includes life and death situations, the sense of duty becomes even stronger. Oftentimes, our sense of duty –will override the fear instinct. That is where true courage originates. Ultimately, courage is an act of love. It’s the love of others above self that will motivate people to endure hardship and brave danger in order to protect others. Without love, there can be no courage.
The Olympic gymnast is another example, though slightly different. The fear of injury and even death is real, but not from other teams. The gymnast must first conquer himself. In a real way, gymnasts must first conquer gravity before they can even approach the “inner voice”. Like any sport, being an Olympic level gymnast requires constant dedication and sacrifice. It requires subordination of fear, heights, and pushing pain completely out of the mind to focus on the task at hand. In addition, teammates are depending on a high score. Years of 4 a.m. practices, foregoing social interactions and activities, arriving at the single moment where the difference between a gold medal and no medal is a fraction of a point. If the gymnast makes a mistake in the Olympics, he’s not only risking injury, he’s letting his country down.
Lastly, consider the courage of the cancer or rehabilitation patient. Both must rise daily with the knowledge they will face pain that day. For the cancer patient, that struggle is an actual fight for their life. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are very hard to endure. There are days of nausea and pain each time. Choosing to fight their disease rather than succumb to it takes a daily dose of special courage. Similarly, the amputee or accident victim who goes to physical therapy knowing they face hours of pain just to hope they reacquire skills they once took for granted takes courage. Wounded Warriors in rehab face weeks or even months of painful therapy to learn to walk again, or feed themselves, or hug their lived ones. People who have suffered physical or psychological trauma must daily choose not to let their injuries define them, The alternative is to cease to live. That is courageous as well.
Overcoming pressure, the fear of mistakes, and the very real fear of severe injury requires physical courage. To be an Olympian is to find the courage to succeed even when success is elusive, to manage fear for years in a single-minded purpose to stand on the winner’s podium.
Mickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 28 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.
Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and blogs.