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on Leading the Next Generation


Why Courage Is Difficult to Develop in Students

I recently asked a group of outstanding student leaders (all seniors in high school) a simple question. They were all smart — the majority of them carry a 4.0 GPA — and many plan to attend Ivy League schools. If any teen should be confident about their future, it should be them. So I asked:

“Are you afraid of the future?”

photo credit:  via photopin (license)

photo credit: via photopin (license)

Every single one of them raised their hand and said yes.

Their response reminded me that courage is not merely about believing in yourself or your smarts or your giftedness. Something else is involved. What’s more, it seems that courage is a virtue that appears more rarely today than in the past—and when we see it, we are enraptured. When a young member of ISIS displays it, he may take the lives of innocent people, and we are terrorized by his courage. When a young teen displays it by standing up to a bully at school, we want to give her a prize. We admire her. Courage is so important to cultivate today, because without it, students cannot truly lead. Winston Churchill said, “Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the one which guarantees all others.” So why is courage so difficult to build in young people today?

Why is Courage Difficult to Muster?

1. We live in a pluralistic world with many options.

Our world is more complex and confusing than ever. Right and wrong are fuzzy. Few situations seem black or white; there is a lot of gray. (Sometimes fifty shades of it). This makes us reluctant to speak out or act.

2. We don’t want to fail.

Failure is a four-letter word today — no one wants to fail. Parents work to prevent failure in their children, while schools have inflated grades since 1970. Sadly, the fear of failure hinders courageous acts.

3. We “baptize” tolerance and blending in.

In a world where we’re told to tolerate everything, kids shrink from taking a stand for fear they might offend someone. While I see the need for tolerance among perspectives, obsession with it can dilute our courage to lead change.

4. We fear social media will haunt us if we’re wrong.

Social media can be a friend and an enemy of courage. We love to broadcast what we do—but because what we say online expands and remains there forever, it can suffocate a student’s courage to do or say something risky.

5. We lack clarity today.

Reflect for a moment. Clarity enables a person to act courageously. When we see a problem and recognize a clear solution, it fosters courage. Without clarity, courage leaks. Resolve gets diluted. We hesitate to take a risk.

Why is Courage so Important?

The truth is, only courage enables a leader to step out. In fact, the only measure of what we believe is what we do. If you want to know what people believe, don’t simply read what they write or ask what they think — just observe what they do. Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.

Too many educators tell me an increasing number of students are afraid to step up and take a leadership position—as a resident advisor, a club leader, a student government officer, or a committee chairperson. For whatever reason, young people are frequently afraid to take a stand or invest the time. I wonder if it has anything to do with the need for a large dose of courage.

In the early part of the 19th century, senator Henry Clay had ambitions to become president. During his campaign, Clay stood in front of his fellow congressmen and made a speech on a very controversial issue. Just before stepping up to the podium, a friend grabbed his arm and stopped him. “Henry Clay, if you try to pass this bill, you’ll ruin your chances to become president.”

Clay looked down at his written speech. After a pause, he asked, “But is this right?”

When his friend responded that he felt it was, Henry Clay gave a classic reply: “Well, then, I’d rather be right than president.”

Wow… if only we used those words today.

This is what courage enables a person to do: to stand for what they believe is right; to risk their reputation, re-election or popularity; to take a risk, even if acting alone.

Join me over the next two days as we address the need for courage. Tomorrow, we will attempt to define just what courage is and what it means for young leaders. On Day Three, we will look at steps students can take to grow their courage “muscle.”

Tell me what you think: why do you believe it’s hard for students to have courage today? Is this a struggle humans have always faced, or are we in a different day?

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  1. CJ Stewart on April 14, 2015 at 8:08 am

    The good news for students that lack courage is that help is here through Habitudes. It’s converstions like this that help adults realize how we are helping and hurting students.

  2. disqus_dNFOKmIxXe on April 14, 2015 at 9:22 am

    I believe in the idea “that which gets rewarded gets repeated”. I think our culture fails to reward courage and appreciate its benefits to the same degree it did in the past. To me, there seems to be a greater appreciation of cleverness ( how to get around a hard thing) rather than the significant, often slower and accrued benefits that courage (going through) fosters. Often our “heroes” or those we celebrate and reward today have very different character (paths) and aims than those in the past. We are trying to use the “failure is fertilizer” idea with our High school student after hearing from her how “fear of failure” (lack of courage) was impacting her. In the last couple years, she has been rejected at a leadership program’s initial selection then attended as an alternate to receive great feedback. She also ran for a small club office and lost, followed by being elected this year to the highest student government position. These experiences of failure have been HARD to watch and go through with her, but her failure and willingness to get back up has brought mentors and advocates in abundance. Not sharing to brag, but encourage other parents to help their children develop that muscle–your blog (and books) have been a wonderful asset in these difficult transitions.

  3. Dalayna on April 14, 2015 at 9:42 am

    Great conversation to start. I believe there is also a lack of courage because of the students WE have developed. Why do they need to be courageous? Their parents, or their leaders, or whoever it may be, will do it for them. Courage has been coddled out of them. How can they step out and do something when they have never had to before? They don’t even know how. We need to start teaching them by EXAMPLE and through PRACTICE. Show them what it looks like to be courageous in your own life. Also practice it with them. Let it start in small ways. Hold their hand and walk them through it. Then slowly let the distance grow between you and your student as they start to step out and be courageous all on their own. As they get older it will be more risky, but they have experienced it before. Yes the fear is remains, or else courage wouldn’t be needed, but they are no longer afraid to face their fears.

    • Sarah Wesgate on April 15, 2015 at 5:19 am

      I completely agree with this! We have coddled the courage out of our kids and students. As a parent of young children, I am so grateful for this knowledge now! Thanks for sharing your wisdom along with Dr. Elmore!

  4. Marisol on April 14, 2015 at 1:02 pm

    I truly agree. Too many of us – children AND adults – bow down to the idol of popularity and choose to not make waves.

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Why Courage Is Difficult to Develop in Students