Are Leaderships Traits Geographically Neutral? Paula Jane Cox

Let us take just one of them and see…

 ‘’ I was courageous last week Paula; I submitted the TRUE results of our team to the board’’

This one statement from a VP in a Leadership program I had facilitated, in the GCC, made me conclude my challenging stance with the word ‘’Courage’’ in the bank of Leadership traits…and challenging it is to be Geographically Neutral…

 It is tapping me on the shoulder non-stop.

Most global Leadership traits and articles will mention ‘Courage’ – being blessed to have discussed this topic with hundreds of Leaders across the world for 25 years, it always pops up… good ole ‘Courage’.

But this week, I am reminded, again, how easy it can be to forget the true geographically driven and cultural elements of any training or mentorship.

It is a serious lack of mindfulness, and we all need to remind ourselves of this topic, habitually!

So; what exactly is Courage? I am thinking on this rather bumpy flight I am (courageously) writing this on, from Kuwait, more so, what differences in context does it land with varied people.

Why? Courage in Leadership is such a subtle notion, and it means so many different things to people, mainly traditionally driven.

 It is another word that has no generic flat line meaning… it is certainly not geographically neutral! It is almost dangerous.

Ask ten different nationalities of Leaders what courage means to them, and they will give you ten quite different examples. Culturally mixed up with varied values and actions.

Cultures more driven towards submissive behaviors and hierarchical structures will not perceive’ ’speaking up, or taking unknown decisions’’ as courage, but indeed as insolence, and will be treated as such. The result can be static business behaviors, some call ‘safe’…

Cultures that hold almost bullish outspoken traits, will take the meaning of courage as being brave and some (many) businesses will group courage as maverick behavior…. against tradition, which as history tells us, can also cause huge explosive results.  End results can be a loss that hits a business to detriment.

 While courage is something that many people applaud, in some situations, bravery can appear reckless, overly aggressive, or downright foolish.

There it is, the word that always follows Courage, and that’s Bravery!

To be ‘’brave’’ means one has some ‘’fear’’

Fear, of course, is an essential part of life. Fear can keep people wedged, but it can also keep them safe from making rash decisions they will later regret. Healthy fear helps ensure a careful appraisal of any scenario before proceeding.

The dictionary definition of courage is “the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear.” 

The dictionary definition of Brave: ‘ready to face and endure danger or pain; showing courage.’

Today, I heard a very enlightened Leader alter the word courage into Endurance… and on it goes…

The dictionary definition of Endurance: ‘the ability to endure an unpleasant or difficult process or situation without giving way.’

The cultural nuance’s and back knowledge and experiences of the word Endurance is an even bigger a topic!

I hope I am starting to give way to some deeper thoughts as to why using attributes and traits as set words, across varying cultures and businesses can be dangerous!

I always research my thoughts and when exploring the word Courage, I am embarrassed to admit, for the first time, I stumble across the fabulous Brené Brown.

{Casandra Brené Brown PhD LMSW is a research professor at the University of Houston where she holds the Huffington Foundation – Brené Brown Endowed Chair at The Graduate College of Social Work.}

Google her, if you have not! she will not disappoint

Brené states: “Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is cor – the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” Over time, this definition has changed, and today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds.

This further embeds the cultural understanding of such a trait…

One of my regular room activities, is to give a group purposeful sharp and quick instruction; ‘To write about an Ice Cream’, no questions permitted…. Two minutes – Go!

Naturally, the results vary hugely, because people are writing in their ‘’world’’ telling their ‘’stories’’ and some will reminisce and write a vast creative story, (even known to create wet eyes in the room) some will write , (often alarmingly for me) rigid, data focused lists, including the freezing temperature of ice cream!!

For those curious types:  Since the ice cream isn’t just water, it needs to be a little below 32°F to freeze (One day I will write a book of the things I learn, in my learning)

The good and bad of ice cream will be geographically dependent from – ‘’it’s good a cooling desert, ‘’ to ‘’it’s dangerous to eat very cold food when it’s hot, we love expensive brands we buy.’’ – all very different, with intent, this shows many things. It shows their society upbringing, personality traits and cultural pictures.

I have also asked for anonymous ‘’results’ and often, I will take anonymous results, read them out later and ask people to guess who wrote this and spot cultural information. Its super eye opening!!

 The main point always is, if we ask 20 different people to ‘write about an ice cream’ without further explanation, expect 20 different responses, we will all be very aware of this, yet we often use the same old list of Leadership Attributes with little regard to how different Leaders and Cultures will evaluate the meanings.

If I did the same with the word ‘’Courage’’ – we would get a similar variant, but we mostly can reverse to a dictionary definition of this word. ‘Brave’ is almost a guaranteed commonality in response.

So, my question is: by using un-geographically neutral words, such as courage – are WE achieving the right results?

To say ‘’Courage’’; agree it as brave and challenging, is a dangerous and culturally ignorant stance! It is like taking two people to a skydive activity; If one fears heights, and one not; only one is exceptionally ‘’brave’’?

Resolve? Making every Leadership trait geographically neutral goes much deeper than a list of words.

Ultimately, we seem to agree that ‘Brave leaders’ take action amid uncertainty and risk falling short for a cause greater than themselves.

Why? Because unless leaders are willing to lay their psychological safety (i.e. pride and power) on the line for the sake of those they serve, no amount of smartness or showmanship will suffice?

There are many scholarship papers around on the Global Leadership Attributes, I discover, so are there on the word ‘Courage’.

Here are just some quick examples:

How does Courage translate in Singapore? (Predominately Chinese cultural driven, but also diverse)

Robert Yeo, CEO of Singapore Training and Development (STADA) and a member of the Learning Innovation Laboratory (LILA) at Harvard Graduate School of Education: “The people from Singapore are very global citizens. English is our first language and as a small state, we must connect to the world. We have a lot of cultural diversity. It takes courage to speak up. We also feel that it can be courageous not to speak truthfully because we understand the consequences of our speech, due to the diversity of cultures. We do not want to upset other cultures.

But in business we tend to speak up. In Asia, most business relationships are based on trust and respect – as opposed to the Western relationship of the “business transaction” alone. Due to that fact, I think that we Asians tend to be courageous and tell our business partners respectfully but honestly that something is wrong for instance – because we value the relationship, and we respect them. If you are acting from a “transaction” mindset – you may not want to speak up because it might jeopardize the transaction if the other person doesn’t take it too well.”

There are also many examples of over opposing views.

Giraffe Heroes Project, {The mission of the Giraffe Heroes Project is to move people to stick their necks out for the common good, and to give them tools to succeed.} started in the USA yet so far, 110 non-Americans that were awarded showed 33 of them are Asians.

‘’There are no Giraffe Heroes in China because that country has blocked the project, but we do not count heroes from Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and Singapore either.

 That is not because those people are not courageous! It is because they tend to have a different style and their actions may not be recognized as courageous. In-your-face actions might make people uncomfortable in Confucianist cultures.

An example: We from the USA were labeling people “heroes” who were working on hot-button issues such as violence against women in India. Our Indian partners were picking people who were quietly working on the inside to change government institutions – often at great bureaucratic risk. Heroism is filtered by cultural norms.’’

None of this cloudy debate of the word courage, is a new debate, yet I see and hear so many L&D professionals flippantly throwing these traits around, assuming commonality in understanding.

The early Greek philosopher, both mine and your friend, Plato (c. 428–348 BCE) set the groundwork for how courage would be viewed to future philosophers. Plato’s early writings found in Laches show a discussion on courage, but they fail to come to a satisfactory conclusion on what courage is.

During the debate between three leaders, including Socrates, many definitions of courage are mentioned.

“…a man willing to remain at his post and to defend himself against the enemy without running away…”

“…a sort of endurance of the soul…”

 “…knowledge of the grounds of fear and hope…” 

In one of his later writings, The Republic, Plato gives more concrete ideas of what he believes courage to be. Civic courage is described as a sort of perseverance – “preservation of the belief that has been indoctrinated by the law through education about what things and sorts of things are to be feared”. Ideas of courage being perseverance also are seen here.

Plato further explains this perseverance as being able to persevere through all emotions, like suffering, pleasure, and fear.

As a desirable quality, courage is also discussed broadly in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, where its vice of shortage is cowardice and its vice of excess is recklessness.

{This deepens my point; courage must be directly applicable to your business}

Thucydides, a 5th Greek historian said; “The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.”

I do not know about you, but unless one is in combat as a business, we do not want too much Courage in Leadership Teams?

I always ask my clients what Leadership traits ‘mean’ in their business, I am not always satisfied with the responses either, which then leads me back to my favorite hot topic of what Leadership means to individual organizations, and how loosely we conclude meaning around these traits…particularly to recruit Leaders… but I’ve covered this so many times, I won’t start again!

I accept that in modern times, courage as being primarily about endurance, not attack, but I still dig deeper to completely show that a word like Courage is a little too cloudy, and somewhat dangerous?

I don’t have a miracle algorithmic solution on how to be geographically neutral but if this has made us aware of the bland, over used Leadership Traits that google blurts out over 85.000 plus books on the topic, then I am happy!

I would be really interested in comments or interpretation’s, and indeed better solutions…publicly or privately.

Let us take just one of them and see…

 ‘’ I was courageous last week Paula; I submitted the TRUE results of our team to the board’’

This one statement from a VP in a Leadership program I had facilitated, in the GCC, made me conclude my challenging stance with the word ‘’Courage’’ in the bank of Leadership traits…and challenging it is to be Geographically Neutral…

 It is tapping me on the shoulder non-stop.

Most global Leadership traits and articles will mention ‘Courage’ – being blessed to have discussed this topic with hundreds of Leaders across the world for 25 years, it always pops up… good ole ‘Courage’.

But this week, I am reminded, again, how easy it can be to forget the true geographically driven and cultural elements of any training or mentorship.

It is a serious lack of mindfulness, and we all need to remind ourselves of this topic, habitually!

So; what exactly is Courage? I am thinking on this rather bumpy flight I am (courageously) writing this on, from Kuwait, more so, what differences in context does it land with varied people.

Why? Courage in Leadership is such a subtle notion, and it means so many different things to people, mainly traditionally driven.

 It is another word that has no generic flat line meaning… it is certainly not geographically neutral! It is almost dangerous.

Ask ten different nationalities of Leaders what courage means to them, and they will give you ten quite different examples. Culturally mixed up with varied values and actions.

Cultures more driven towards submissive behaviors and hierarchical structures will not perceive’ ’speaking up, or taking unknown decisions’’ as courage, but indeed as insolence, and will be treated as such. The result can be static business behaviors, some call ‘safe’…

Cultures that hold almost bullish outspoken traits, will take the meaning of courage as being brave and some (many) businesses will group courage as maverick behavior…. against tradition, which as history tells us, can also cause huge explosive results.  End results can be a loss that hits a business to detriment.

 While courage is something that many people applaud, in some situations, bravery can appear reckless, overly aggressive, or downright foolish.

There it is, the word that always follows Courage, and that’s Bravery!

To be ‘’brave’’ means one has some ‘’fear’’

Fear, of course, is an essential part of life. Fear can keep people wedged, but it can also keep them safe from making rash decisions they will later regret. Healthy fear helps ensure a careful appraisal of any scenario before proceeding.

The dictionary definition of courage is “the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear.” 

The dictionary definition of Brave: ‘ready to face and endure danger or pain; showing courage.’

Today, I heard a very enlightened Leader alter the word courage into Endurance… and on it goes…

The dictionary definition of Endurance: ‘the ability to endure an unpleasant or difficult process or situation without giving way.’

The cultural nuance’s and back knowledge and experiences of the word Endurance is an even bigger a topic!

I hope I am starting to give way to some deeper thoughts as to why using attributes and traits as set words, across varying cultures and businesses can be dangerous!

I always research my thoughts and when exploring the word Courage, I am embarrassed to admit, for the first time, I stumble across the fabulous Brené Brown.

{Casandra Brené Brown PhD LMSW is a research professor at the University of Houston where she holds the Huffington Foundation – Brené Brown Endowed Chair at The Graduate College of Social Work.}

Google her, if you have not! she will not disappoint

Brené states: “Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is cor – the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” Over time, this definition has changed, and today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds.

This further embeds the cultural understanding of such a trait…

One of my regular room activities, is to give a group purposeful sharp and quick instruction; ‘To write about an Ice Cream’, no questions permitted…. Two minutes – Go!

Naturally, the results vary hugely, because people are writing in their ‘’world’’ telling their ‘’stories’’ and some will reminisce and write a vast creative story, (even known to create wet eyes in the room) some will write , (often alarmingly for me) rigid, data focused lists, including the freezing temperature of ice cream!!

For those curious types:  Since the ice cream isn’t just water, it needs to be a little below 32°F to freeze (One day I will write a book of the things I learn, in my learning)

The good and bad of ice cream will be geographically dependent from – ‘’it’s good a cooling desert, ‘’ to ‘’it’s dangerous to eat very cold food when it’s hot, we love expensive brands we buy.’’ – all very different, with intent, this shows many things. It shows their society upbringing, personality traits and cultural pictures.

I have also asked for anonymous ‘’results’ and often, I will take anonymous results, read them out later and ask people to guess who wrote this and spot cultural information. Its super eye opening!!

 The main point always is, if we ask 20 different people to ‘write about an ice cream’ without further explanation, expect 20 different responses, we will all be very aware of this, yet we often use the same old list of Leadership Attributes with little regard to how different Leaders and Cultures will evaluate the meanings.

If I did the same with the word ‘’Courage’’ – we would get a similar variant, but we mostly can reverse to a dictionary definition of this word. ‘Brave’ is almost a guaranteed commonality in response.

So, my question is: by using un-geographically neutral words, such as courage – are WE achieving the right results?

To say ‘’Courage’’; agree it as brave and challenging, is a dangerous and culturally ignorant stance! It is like taking two people to a skydive activity; If one fears heights, and one not; only one is exceptionally ‘’brave’’?

Resolve? Making every Leadership trait geographically neutral goes much deeper than a list of words.

Ultimately, we seem to agree that ‘Brave leaders’ take action amid uncertainty and risk falling short for a cause greater than themselves.

Why? Because unless leaders are willing to lay their psychological safety (i.e. pride and power) on the line for the sake of those they serve, no amount of smartness or showmanship will suffice?

There are many scholarship papers around on the Global Leadership Attributes, I discover, so are there on the word ‘Courage’.

Here are just some quick examples:

How does Courage translate in Singapore? (Predominately Chinese cultural driven, but also diverse)

Robert Yeo, CEO of Singapore Training and Development (STADA) and a member of the Learning Innovation Laboratory (LILA) at Harvard Graduate School of Education: “The people from Singapore are very global citizens. English is our first language and as a small state, we must connect to the world. We have a lot of cultural diversity. It takes courage to speak up. We also feel that it can be courageous not to speak truthfully because we understand the consequences of our speech, due to the diversity of cultures. We do not want to upset other cultures.

But in business we tend to speak up. In Asia, most business relationships are based on trust and respect – as opposed to the Western relationship of the “business transaction” alone. Due to that fact, I think that we Asians tend to be courageous and tell our business partners respectfully but honestly that something is wrong for instance – because we value the relationship, and we respect them. If you are acting from a “transaction” mindset – you may not want to speak up because it might jeopardize the transaction if the other person doesn’t take it too well.”

There are also many examples of over opposing views.

Giraffe Heroes Project, {The mission of the Giraffe Heroes Project is to move people to stick their necks out for the common good, and to give them tools to succeed.} started in the USA yet so far, 110 non-Americans that were awarded showed 33 of them are Asians.

‘’There are no Giraffe Heroes in China because that country has blocked the project, but we do not count heroes from Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and Singapore either.

 That is not because those people are not courageous! It is because they tend to have a different style and their actions may not be recognized as courageous. In-your-face actions might make people uncomfortable in Confucianist cultures.

An example: We from the USA were labeling people “heroes” who were working on hot-button issues such as violence against women in India. Our Indian partners were picking people who were quietly working on the inside to change government institutions – often at great bureaucratic risk. Heroism is filtered by cultural norms.’’

None of this cloudy debate of the word courage, is a new debate, yet I see and hear so many L&D professionals flippantly throwing these traits around, assuming commonality in understanding.

The early Greek philosopher, both mine and your friend, Plato (c. 428–348 BCE) set the groundwork for how courage would be viewed to future philosophers. Plato’s early writings found in Laches show a discussion on courage, but they fail to come to a satisfactory conclusion on what courage is.

During the debate between three leaders, including Socrates, many definitions of courage are mentioned.

“…a man willing to remain at his post and to defend himself against the enemy without running away…”

“…a sort of endurance of the soul…”

 “…knowledge of the grounds of fear and hope…” 

In one of his later writings, The Republic, Plato gives more concrete ideas of what he believes courage to be. Civic courage is described as a sort of perseverance – “preservation of the belief that has been indoctrinated by the law through education about what things and sorts of things are to be feared”. Ideas of courage being perseverance also are seen here.

Plato further explains this perseverance as being able to persevere through all emotions, like suffering, pleasure, and fear.

As a desirable quality, courage is also discussed broadly in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, where its vice of shortage is cowardice and its vice of excess is recklessness.

{This deepens my point; courage must be directly applicable to your business}

Thucydides, a 5th Greek historian said; “The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.”

I do not know about you, but unless one is in combat as a business, we do not want too much Courage in Leadership Teams?

I always ask my clients what Leadership traits ‘mean’ in their business, I am not always satisfied with the responses either, which then leads me back to my favorite hot topic of what Leadership means to individual organizations, and how loosely we conclude meaning around these traits…particularly to recruit Leaders… but I’ve covered this so many times, I won’t start again!

I accept that in modern times, courage as being primarily about endurance, not attack, but I still dig deeper to completely show that a word like Courage is a little too cloudy, and somewhat dangerous?

I don’t have a miracle algorithmic solution on how to be geographically neutral but if this has made us aware of the bland, over used Leadership Traits that google blurts out over 85.000 plus books on the topic, then I am happy!

I would be really interested in comments or interpretation’s, and indeed better solutions…publicly or privately.

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