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?”
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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