Why Courage is Difficult to Develop in Teenagers by Tim Elmore


I recently asked a group of outstanding student leaders (all seniors in high school) a simple question. They were all smart — the majority of them carry a 4.0 GPA — and many plan to attend Ivy League schools. If any teen should be confident about their future, it should be them. So I asked:

“Are you afraid of the future?”

Their response reminded me that courage is not merely about believing in yourself or your smarts or your giftedness. Something else is involved. What’s more, it seems that courage is a virtue that appears more rarely today than in the past—and when we see it, we are enraptured. When a young member of ISIS displays it, he may take the lives of innocent people, and we are terrorized by his courage. When a young teen displays it by standing up to a bully at school, we want to give her a prize. We admire her. Courage is so important to cultivate today, because without it, students cannot truly lead. Winston Churchill said, “Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the one which guarantees all others.” So why is courage so difficult to build in young people today?

1. We live in a pluralistic world with many options.

Our world is more complex and confusing than ever. Right and wrong are fuzzy. Few situations seem black or white; there is a lot of gray. (Sometimes fifty shades of it). This makes us reluctant to speak out or act.

2. We don’t want to fail.

Failure is a four-letter word today — no one wants to fail. Parents work to prevent failure in their children, while schools have inflated grades since 1970. Sadly, the fear of failure hinders courageous acts.

3. We “baptize” tolerance and blending in.

In a world where we’re told to tolerate everything, kids shrink from taking a stand for fear they might offend someone. While I see the need for tolerance among perspectives, obsession with it can dilute our courage to lead change.

4. We fear social media will haunt us if we’re wrong.

Social media can be a friend and an enemy of courage. We love to broadcast what we do—but because what we say online expands and remains there forever, it can suffocate a student’s courage to do or say something risky.

5. We lack clarity today.

Reflect for a moment. Clarity enables a person to act courageously. When we see a problem and recognize a clear solution, it fosters courage. Without clarity, courage leaks. Resolve gets diluted. We hesitate to take a risk.

Why is Courage so Important?

The truth is, only courage enables a leader to step out. In fact, the only measure of what we believe is what we do. If you want to know what people believe, don’t simply read what they write or ask what they think — just observe what they do. Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.

Too many educators tell me an increasing number of students are afraid to step up and take a leadership position—as a resident advisor, a club leader, a student government officer, or a committee chairperson. For whatever reason, young people are frequently afraid to take a stand or invest the time. I wonder if it has anything to do with the need for a large dose of courage.

In the early part of the 19th century, senator Henry Clay had ambitions to become president. During his campaign, Clay stood in front of his fellow congressmen and made a speech on a very controversial issue. Just before stepping up to the podium, a friend grabbed his arm and stopped him. “Henry Clay, if you try to pass this bill, you’ll ruin your chances to become president.”

Clay looked down at his written speech. After a pause, he asked, “But is this right?”

When his friend responded that he felt it was, Henry Clay gave a classic reply: “Well, then, I’d rather be right than president.”

Wow… if only we used those words today.

This is what courage enables a person to do: to stand for what they believe is right; to risk their reputation, re-election or popularity; to take a risk, even if acting alone.

Join me over the next two days as we address the need for courage. Tomorrow, we will attempt to define just what courage is and what it means for young leaders. On Day Three, we will look at steps students can take to grow their courage “muscle.”

How to Define Courage for Students

Courage has always been challenging to cultivate. We humans tend to shrink from doing what is difficult, unpopular or may garner enemies. However, it’s my belief that our society today makes displaying courage especially hard.

As I meet with students, I consistently hear them say things like:

• “I don’t want to take a leadership position. I’m afraid I’ll lose my friends if I have to confront them on something.”

• “I’m scared to death of graduating. I know how to do well in school, but I fear I won’t measure up as I enter college… or a career.”

• “I moved back home after college. Now, I’m afraid to move out. I’m worried I’ll make a bad decision about my first job and apartment. I feel stuck.”

What Exactly is Courage?

Contrary to what myths and legends may communicate, courage isn’t super-human. It actually can co-exist with fear and doesn’t remove our innate human weaknesses. We actually display it in everyday choices we make, but unfortunately, today’s world tends to safeguard kids from developing much of it—especially when it comes to the current demand for guarantees, safety rules, and risk-free policies from over-functioning parents. What’s more, kids who have grown up watching movies of knights slaying dragons or playing video games like Call of Duty (where the hero takes on fifty enemies) can get the wrong idea about courage and easily disqualify themselves as people who just don’t have any.

When I teach leadership to students and list the fundamental qualities of a leader, courage always ranks at the top of what students believe they lack.

To put it simply, courage is the ability to do what frightens you. 

It’s the willingness to confront fear, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation.

When we develop courage in students, we enable them to take appropriate risks, to take initiative and act — in short, to be a decision-maker and a responsibility-taker.

If I were to break it down a bit further, I’d describe courage in five ways:

1. Courage is contagious.
The good news is, just like fear can be contagious, so can courage. When a student takes a stand on what is right, they often give permission to others to do the same. This is why leadership often begins with entrepreneurship.

2. Courage is initiating and doing what you are afraid of doing.
As I said earlier, courage can co-exist with fear. In fact, it acts in spite of fear. You can’t build courage with mere lectures or theories. Like a muscle, courage only grows when we act. It requires that we run to the roar.

3. Courage is the power to let go of the familiar.
When we cling to what’s familiar or comfortable, we tend to eliminate risk. Unfortunately, risk is a prerequisite for courage. When we risk too little and rescue too quickly, we diminish a student’s chances to grow courage.

4. Courage is vision in action.
Anyone can catch a vision. In fact, anyone who’s ever taken a shower has probably gotten a good idea. Courage is what enables us to get out of the shower, dry off, and do something about that good idea.

5. Courage takes the risk and seizes what is essential for growth.
Healthy courage is always about forward movement and growth. Leaders always push teams toward progress. It involves risk and action. Once these are displayed, they become a model for others to follow.

It was during my first 30 years that my parents, teachers, coaches and mentors pushed me to be courageous. I remember experiencing a bad bicycle accident on a steep hill in San Diego when I was in high school. After my mom lovingly nursed me back to health, she and dad let me know that the quickest way to battle being overcome with fear was to get right back on that bike when I was able. And I did.

I had a mentor who challenged me to join him and serve the homeless on the streets of San Diego. It was a scary time for me as a middle-class teen, but I did it. My courage muscle kept growing. During college, I worked with a youth group where we discussed the song lyrics of rock bands like KISS, Styx, Elton John and others. During those days, I ended up seeking out those musicians and talking to them about their lyrics and their impact on kids. I spoke with Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Tommy Shaw, Dennis DeYoung, Ozzy Osborne, Elton John and others. It was frightening, but those risky ventures continued to grow my courage muscle.

During the 1980’s, my employers gave me increasing responsibilities in areas I had no experience. I was scared—but as I assumed authority, my courage muscle expanded. In 1990, I was in a small plane crash while in New Zealand. It was one of the most horrifying moments of my life—but in recovery, I was able to speak on a national news broadcast about what I had learned from the experience. By this time, I learned that fear and courage can co-exist… but courage must push me to do what I fear.

Cultivating Courage in Students

My friend Andy Stanley suggests that courage is a blend of clear perspective and the irresistible urge to act. Clarity generally comes first. Here are some steps we can take with our students to enable them to grow in courage:

1. Help them clarify their moral compass. 
This means we talk over what they really believe in deeply. We are most likely to exhibit bravery when we know the principles we most value.

 2. Identify their strengths and unique gifts.
Courage surfaces when students have opportunities to act in line with their primary gifts. In other words, they’ll be most confident in areas of strength.

3. Read the stories of past courageous leaders.
Once a person exhibits backbone, the spines of others are often strengthened. Help students locate narratives of past leaders who stood amidst adversity.

4. Attempt something new and risky every week.
I’ve practiced this for years now. Courage requires a risky step. Ask them: when was the last time they did something for the first time?

5. Together, make an “all in” commitment to a good habit for a set time.
Being brave is often about doing a good thing, not a great thing. Identify a good habit you can start practicing together and commit to it for two weeks.

6. Hold them accountable on key decisions they’ve made.
Courage is sustained through friendly accountability. Once they decide to commit to a brave decision, hold them accountable to follow through.

7. Interview a courageous leader and ask: what gives you courage?
This has been priceless to me. I love finding people who’ve displayed bravery and discussed what it was that enabled them to act courageously. Take notes.

8. Encourage them to participate in “rejection therapy.”
This is a self-help game created by Jason Comely, where being rejected by someone is the sole winning condition. This exercise emboldens the players.

9. Nudge them to get involved in a cause for which they’re passionate.
Ambrose Redmoon once said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.”

10. Help them do what they fear the most… and the death of fear is certain.
True strength is keeping everything together when everyone expects you to fall apart. Courage expands when we initiate in an area we fear treading.

In the end, the brave may not live forever, but the cautious don’t live at all. Let’s equip our students to really live.

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