It felt as though a fever had broken. I suddenly felt free. I knew that I had to risk ending this professional relationship in order to improve it. I had to move away from a thousand evasive options and into one direct one.
When things are good, everyone’s courageous. When money is flush, most people will invest in the future. When relationships are strong, most people will raise the stakes and ask for more. When the future appears certain, most people will explore creatively.
But how many folks will embrace courage when times are tough?
Not nearly as many as when times are good, is the short answer. It’s perfectly natural for us to defer difficult decisions when times are unsteady or challenging—and sometimes this is the prudent course of action. Yet there are plenty of situations in which fear drives passivity and passivity compounds struggles.
This often plays out when people are taking on big changes, such as starting a business. They get into it, experience some success, and then plenty of struggles. Their confidence begins to waver. They start pulling back. They behaviorally or emotionally hedge their bets.
This often leads to a downward spiral.
Burn the ships is often the expression that people say in this sort of situation. “It’s time for you to ‘burn the ships,’” is what they’ll say. For me, this is one of those expressions that conveys an important principle, although it likely came from an awful source.
The story goes that a famous military commander (take your pick: William the Conqueror, Hernan Cortez, or others) landed in a new place and ordered his soldiers to burn their ships. The point was that he couldn’t guarantee victory, but he could remove any reason not to fully commit.
It’s this commitment that’s the key.
How many times, when you’re facing danger, do you step into it? It’s not natural. It’s often called heroic. Burning the ships, metaphorically, means giving a situation all that you’ve got, even though success is not guaranteed.
Consider the following questions:
- Your relationship with your significant other is not going well. Do you challenge him or her to face the struggle?
- Your child is struggling with a serious issue. Do you patiently dig deep to understand what’s going on?
- Your business is floundering. Do you throw yourself into doing the hard work to turn things around?
One of my mentors once challenged me during a conversation about a professional struggle that I was having. I went on and on about how hopeless the situation looked, about how futile all of my attempts had been to make progress.
My mentor patiently listened, asked a few basic, clarifying questions, and then asked me: “What’s the most courageous thing you could do right now?”
It felt as though a fever had broken. I suddenly felt free. I knew that I had to risk ending this professional relationship in order to improve it. I had to move away from a thousand evasive options and into one direct one. I had to commit to doing what I set out to do with this client from the beginning: to help. Chasing, blaming, and playing games wasn’t helping. I had to be bold and direct.
I never forgot that question. I’ve used numerous times to support others.
The courage to risk isn’t about coercion or domination. It’s about personal vulnerability. It’s not hard to chastise or critique other people. It is hard to “call out the elephant in the room” and challenge others to rise to the occasion.
The author Robert Quinn has written extensively about the concept of adaptive confidence. Quinn says, “The practice of adaptive confidence means that we are willing to enter uncertain situations because we have a higher purpose and we are confident that we can learn and adapt as we move forward.” This means that we don’t have all the answers before we proceed. We don’t know exactly how things will turn out.
But we believe in ourselves to meet any challenge and learn from every obstacle. We believe in our own internal fortitude. We believe in who we are.
We know we will persevere.
Think about a challenge you’re facing right now. What’s the most courageous thing you can do?
Photo credit: Flickr/Vishal Patel