Courage in Practice – An Interview with Feena May of the ICRC – Part 1

We recently spoke with Feena May, Ph.D., Head of Learning and Development at the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross), in Geneva. The Red Cross and Red Crescent movement is the largest humanitarian network in the world, working to alleviate human suffering and protect victims of international and internal armed conflicts. Feena’s experience with courage both in the field and in developing leaders in the organization gives her a unique perspective.  (Part 1 of a 2-part series)

How would you describe courage – what is your definition?

Courage in a leader is the ability to do what is right and to inspire others to do what is right.

And if I answer the question ‘What does courage mean individually?’ I would say it means to stand in oneself, to respect oneself – to move from a place that makes sense of one’s own world and one’s place in the world.

I’ll share a story from my first mission (in Bosnia). I was in a camp for internally displaced people that held about 150 (mostly women and children), in a school.  It was miserable there.  It was cold, it was raining.  It was winter in Bosnia.  And I sat with a woman and she told me her story.  And her story was a story of betrayal and violence that left her without a home and more importantly without knowing the fate of her older sons or her husband. It was incredibly moving to hear her story and what was most astonishing to me is that she told her story without any hate.  Just imagine the courage it takes to stand in a story like this and not hate.  She has stayed with me – that dignity that she held in the worst of times is a powerful example of courage.  And I think, in some ways, perhaps more courageous than my colleagues and me going into a war zone.  She embodied what individual courage is to me – to be able to hold that space no matter what is happening around you, to preserve the dignity of that space and preserve the space for the dignity for others.

We tend to think of courage only in large gestures and situations but I see courage so often in the smaller spaces – the courage in taking the time needed; in how I relate; in the spaces I create as a leader for people to speak their truth and – as a leader – in the courage to fully listen.  Here is where I think mindfulness plays an important role to enable us to hold the space regardless of the emotion that is generated by the discussion. And so for me this is the core of courage – creating a space that holds dignity for self and for others.

The core of #courage: creating a space that holds dignity for self and for others ~@FeenaMay @ICRC

What do you think leaders struggle with to get to their own place of courage?

I see leaders struggle to find the time and space to choose how best to engage – to consider what a courageous action would be – rather than react. I also see people struggle when they have a disagreement with what their organization is doing, where it is heading and probably most importantly, frustration with the way their organization treats its people.

There is fear to overcome when you choose to stand for what you believe in despite what may happen. For leaders there is fear because you are facing judgement.  Because to speak out can often mean you are standing in opposition.  And understandably leaders struggle with the fear of being labeled, the fear of the unknown, the fear of being wrong and the fear of what they might lose.

How do organizations both foster and impede the development of courage?

An organization succeeds in fostering courage by establishing a culture of trust and by allowing individuals to speak what is true for them. But to effectively create a culture deserving of trust, leaders must model the behaviors and embrace the values they espouse. It creates significant challenges for leaders to create spaces that are fair, just and open within organizational cultures that do not live by these values, are not rewarding them nor effectively dealing with their absence. If there is the slightest doubt that the organization lives the values they espouse, individuals are less likely to speak their minds or to take an active role in creating positive outcomes in the organization.

Organizations can also influence courage in the way they define what makes someone promotable. Is a leader’s success based on towing the line? Is this an organization that allows leaders to bring their ideas forward or does the organization promote leaders who voice what is culturally acceptable to hear? Courage can be cultivated in an organization when the top leadership supports the constructive free expression of ideas and fair action.

The research coming out of the VUCA world concept (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) reinforces the need to give people meaningful levels of autonomy to decrease anxiety in organizations.  In my own leadership research, courage was always present when people described examples of positive leadership. That courage allowed those leaders to see the big picture and do what was right for the whole and not just for self. And in all the examples given of good leadership, the issue of power never came up once, while in the examples given of poor leadership, power was always an issue. It takes courage to be in the leadership space and to give power away by sharing power, by giving others a voice and by letting others take the lead.  It takes courage to being willing to share power and yet still take the responsibility to lead and to support (and sometimes protect) the team.

Part 2 of this interview with Feena May of the ICRC will be published in early November. If you’d like to be notified when the post is available, as well as other future posts, please subscribe to the WCC Project using the form below.

About the author

As president of MRG, Tricia uses her penchant for bursting into song and bringing out the best in people in approximately equal measure.

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Robert Cornett
Robert Cornett
8 years ago

Thank you for sharing this from Feena May. “Creating a space that holds dignity for self and others”. “Establishing a culture of trust by allowing individuals to speak what is true for them.” Providing ” meaningful levels of autonomy to decrease anxiety in organizations.” Seeing “the big picture and doing what was right for the whole not just the self”. There is much wisdom here.

I look forward to past 2 of this interview!

Anne DeFrancesco
Anne DeFrancesco
8 years ago

Thank you Feena May and MRG for this beautiful testimony to living the life of the leader. I look forward to part two.