Choosing Courage: A book review by Bob Morris

Choosing Courage: The Everyday Guide to Being Brave at Work
Jim Detert
Harvard Business Review Press (May 2021)

A thorough analysis of “natural human tendencies in the face of common opportunities for courage”

As Jim Detert explains in Chapter 1, “I define workplace courage as a [begin italics] work-domain-relevant acts done for a worthy cause despite significant risks perceivable in the moment to the actor [end italics].” But put more simply, workplace courage is taking action at work because it feels right and important to stand for principle, a cause, or a group of others, despite the potential for serious career, social, psychological, and even physical repercussions for doing so.” That is, speaking truth to power — whatever  that power’s nature and extent may be.

“And it  includes acts aimed at personal and organizational growth, such as taking on stretch assignments, owning bold initiatives, and innovating within or beyond one’s current organization.”

As Detert well knows, in the healthiest workplace cultures, principled dissent is not only tolerated or even encouraged, it is REQUIRED. The most effective leaders throughout history demand to be told what they [begin italics] need to know [end italics], not what they want to hear.

These are among the passages of greatest inter est and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Detert’s coverage::

o Choosing courage (Pages 1-20)
o Truth to Power behaviors (23-46)
o Challenging authority figures/Challenging the boss (28-34 and 80-81)
o Candid conversations and bold actions (47-71)
o Workplace risks (48-51)

o Building your “courage ladder” (77-86)
o Creating right conditions for courageous acts/action (89-106)
o Building your internal reputation (90-99)
o Knowing your most important priorities (103-104)
o Choosing battles and courageous acts/action (107-125)

o Determining key values and goals (108-112)
o Anger: recognizing and managing key emotions (115-116 & 145-147)
o Managing the most important messages (127-142)
o Making the strongest case (134-140)
o Connecting to others’ priorities (137-138)

I wholly agree with Jim Detert that “thinking about courage as constituting specific acts, not the innate characteristic of a limited number of people, helps us recognize that we all share responsibility for being courageous and that skill comes from [reparation and practice.” Also, we can improve our competence, and hence the likelihood of positive outcomes when we act courageously, “by studying what others do well before, during, and after their acts of courage, and by committing to practice those kinds of behavior.”

Made years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan asserted: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts.” When a crisis occurs and difficult decisions must be made, both verifiable facts and well-informed opinions are essential. Candor  can also be of great value between crises. For example, during communication, cooperation, and (especially) collaboration between and among stakeholders.

This uniquely valuable book cannot give you courage but it can help you develop it within yourself and, by setting an example, help others to develop it within themselves. Embrace that challenge, confident of success. And meanwhile keep in mind this observation by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”



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