Well into my career in the U.S. Navy, I received an unexpected and not especially welcome order. It involved an overnight flight from my base in Europe to Washington, D.C., where I needed to deliver a morning briefing to a roomful of senior officials. Then I would head back to the airport immediately to jump on another plane for the return trip to Italy. I didn't get much time with my family anyway, and this journey was only adding to the problem.
The briefing that morning went well, but it did little to improve my spirits as I boarded the return flight. Worn out and feeling sorry for myself, I settled into my seat. Within a minute or two, a flight attendant approached. She wanted to know if I would swap seats with another passenger, who was uncomfortable in hers.
Given how the past twenty-four hours had gone, what was one more inconvenience? Grudgingly, I agreed.
Moving toward the front, I saw a woman, pale as a ghost, rush past and take my old seat. A few steps later, her source of distress became clear. In the seat next to the one she had just abandoned sat a young woman with no arms or legs. She was visibly upset that her appearance had rattled her previous seatmate so much.
"Hello," I said. "Hopefully you don't mind sitting next to a bald- headed Navy guy for this whole flight."
The conversation we had as our plane crossed the Atlantic changed my life. This extraordinary young woman explained how she had been given up for adoption at birth before another family took her in two months later.
Being born without any limbs would make almost anyone despair for their future, but her adoptive parents set high standards from the very start. They expected the same things from all their children: use the gifts you had, be resilient when things got tough, study hard, and do all the normal things kids and young adults did—learn how to drive, go to college, start a career.
And that's exactly what this young woman had done. That day, she was flying to Rome as an engineer on her way to her first international conference.
I'd stepped onto the plane feeling sorry for myself—and left it feeling greatly inspired by this young woman's incredible persistence, attitude, humility, and, perhaps most of all, astonishing courage.
Courage, in my experience, is a trait that we often define too narrowly. We tend to associate it with something physically bold and risky, like landing a plane on an aircraft carrier, which I'd learned in the Navy, or—for the truly adventurous—making a living by diving off hundred-foot-high platforms while you're also on fire, like Bill Treasurer. Actions like those do of course require courage—but so do many less spectacular challenges that we encounter every day. At home, helping a child through a difficult stretch at school, accepting blunt feedback from a spouse or partner, or telling a loved one that we're sorry can all take courage. Community involvement doesn't necessarily offer a reprieve either. Giving a speech to a civic club, taking on a volunteer leadership role at a school, or knocking on doors to support a political candidate can push us well out of our comfort zones.
As Bill Treasurer explores so engagingly in this book, courage is just as critical at work. We need it to stand up to bullying bosses and to challenge organizational policies or decisions that are shortsighted or unfair. We need courage to take on what my colleague Nick Petrie refers to as "heat experiences"—work assignments that are high-profile, beyond our current capabilities, and carry the very real risk of failure. We need it for the frank conversations we must sometimes have when the women and men we are privileged to lead are falling short of their potential. The more we understand what courage really is, the more we can nurture it in ourselves and our teams, as well as our families, friends, and neighbors.
In this highly insightful and practical book, Bill performs the important service of taking the sometimes mysterious and intimidating nature of courage and making it explicable for everyone, especially for those of us who wonder if we'll ever have enough of it. He wisely identifies the three primary kinds of courage: the courage to try new things, to trust others, and to speak the truth. And, like the world-class coach that he is, Bill takes us on a step- by-step tour of how to foster each of these types of courage in ourselves and others. "Everyone has the capacity to be courageous," he proclaims early in this book, reminding me of our own conviction at the Center for Creative Leadership that everyone has capacity to be a leader. Taking this just one step further, it's fair to say that all of us have the ability to be courageous leaders.