We recently spoke with Feena May, Ph.D., Head of Learning and Development at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), 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 organizational leaders gives her a unique perspective on the subject. (This is Part 2 of a 2-part series. Click here to read Part 1)
Is there a difference between courage in the field and leadership courage?
When you are working in places like Yemen and Syria there is the kind of courage that comes with putting your life on the line and there are all the benefits that go with that as well – the sense of value and of making a truly meaningful contribution. So there is a very practical kind of courage that comes from being in the field both from a security point of view but also the kind of courage it takes to be able to listen to the stories that people are telling you. It takes courage to be able to listen and remain empathetic and useful as opposed to being empathetic and overwhelmed.
In looking at the connection between our colleagues on the frontline and people in leadership roles I would say this, courage in the frontline work is enabled because we are serving the beneficiaries, because we are serving something bigger than ourselves and something which is worth doing. And I think therein lies the lesson for leaders. Courage becomes possible when we are serving something bigger than ourselves and the pursuit is worth doing.
Can you comment a bit on your own journey with courage?
Along the way I have gained the courage to be different and the courage to pursue a life that comes from wisdom that is bigger than my own self interests. Growing up, it was the willingness to stand out and to speak on behalf of others who didn’t have a voice, the courage to discover my own path and to follow that. It not only takes courage to choose to walk a different path it also takes courage to choose or decide when the path is changing direction and it takes courage to admit when rest is needed. This is perhaps especially true when you are in a leadership role because people expect you to know what is right and to lead them in the right direction. It takes courage to stand in a space where you can move ahead and make decisions and ask your people to travel with you. It also takes courage to stand alone and to take the lonely road because sometimes that is where wisdom leads you. And it takes courage to stop and reflect.
How do wisdom and compassion relate to courage?
Courage can only be enacted if there is respect and compassion for oneself. If we walk our journey in the best way we can, with some compassion for self and compassion for others, then we are at the first cornerstone of courage. I’ve learned that if you don’t listen with compassion you actually can’t hear what is really going on.
If we say that at least some aspect of courage is about doing what is right, then we have to have confidence in the answer to the question ‘Right for whom?’. Wisdom helps us get clarity on what is both right for the leader and also right for others. It takes courage and wisdom to take into consideration all the stakeholders and not become overwhelmed or shrink from the challenge.
Wisdom is what connects us to that which is bigger than ourselves and it’s only worth having courage if it links us to something bigger than ourselves. In the end, we cannot be courageous if we are only serving ourselves.
Ultimately I would say that compassion enables courage to happen because it links us with others and wisdom gives direction to courage because it takes us somewhere…somewhere bigger than ourselves.
Part 1 of this interview with Feena May of the ICRC was published in October 2015 and is available here.