lead wisely courageous

Lead Wisely: Develop a Courageous Heart

“I’ve learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision.” – Maya Angelou

The great philosopher Aristotle once said, “You will never do anything in this world without courage. It is the greatest quality of the mind next to honor.”  But courage is something more than a quality of the mind.  It is, as I learned from my wife, primarily a condition of the heart.

My wife Holly is many wonderful things, not the least of which is a trained, classical, five-element acupuncturist.  Admittedly, like many others, I was not sure what to think when she chose to pursue this very untraditional path.  After all, it seemed so “out there,” so – dare I say – so unconventional.  Personally, her chosen profession had another significant drawback. Namely, I don’t care for needles.  Getting shots almost makes me faint.  What if she wanted to practice on me?  How would I nicely say, “No” without making the guestroom my permanent habitat? Needless to say, fear of what I didn’t know about my wife’s latest undertaking left me feeling far from courageous.

So what does Holly’s acupuncture training have to do with leadership, you ask?  Simply this: It introduced me to a whole new way of looking at the important role the heart plays in making us not only healthier people, but in effect, better leaders.

From a Western perspective, the heart is a mechanical pump that transports blood first to the lungs then on to the rest of the body.  This is a process we know as oxygenation. When the heart stops, death ensues. However, in Chinese medicine, the heart is far more than a muscle performing a required task for physical survival.  The heart is actually considered the leader of the entire body, commonly referred to as the “Emperor.” It is the irreplaceable organ that rules all aspects of our being: physically, mentally and spiritually.

The heart is actually considered the leader of the entire body

In acupuncture terms, when the heart is in a state of balance, it is said that the emperor rules wisely.  We think clearly and creatively.  We are articulate, can experience joy and passion from what we are doing, and are at peace with ourselves.  We also connect more vitally with others and are considered at the top of our game.  Our influence is positive and we routinely build value into those around us.

When the heart is unbalanced, however, the Emperor is deemed to not rule well.  We are often ruthless, self-oriented, and distracted.  Our thoughts are clouded and we become irrational and even inarticulate.  We are often more interested in satisfying ourselves than investing in others.  As such, we feel disconnected from those around us and as a result, our influence and effectiveness as a leader is greatly diminished.

The Chinese are not the only ones to recognize that our heart is not merely a physical organ but also, a symbol of the source of internal fortitude we draw from to guide our thoughts and ultimately, drive our actions. For example, the Hebrew Bible uses the term “heart” to describe the bundle of hopes, dreams, affections, interests, and ambitions we each possess.  From such a view, our heart represents the source of all our motivations—what we love to do and what we care most about.  In other words, it reveals to others the real us—who we truly are (our authentic self) and what we are willing to stand and fight for (our courageous self). As the Book of Proverbs aptly records, “as a face is reflected in water, so the heart reflects the person;” This is testimony to the truth we may pretend to be something we are not for a season, but ultimately, our words and ways will reveal the true conditions of our hearts.

[Tweet “Our words and ways will reveal the true conditions of our hearts. – @JohnEMichel”]

In this vein it’s interesting to note that the Hebrew language actually has two words for courage. The first, chutzpah, is well known and carries negative connotations. People with chutzpah are often viewed as arrogant, pushy, and prone to act with little thought about the effect they have on others. As a result, people find it hard to trust them.

The other Hebrew term for courage is Ometz lev, which means strength of heart. This type of courage derives from a personality that draws people to you; makes others feel valued, appreciated, and empowered; and communicates by our choices our commitment to pursuing right actions.  In other words, it reflects a heart committed to building value into others’ lives, one others-centered choice at a time.

If you pause and think about it, many of the troubles we experience in life occur because we base our choices not on what our hearts advise us is the best course of action but rather, on unreliable sources such as culture (“everyone else is doing it”), tradition (“we’ve always done it this way”), reason (“this seemed the logical thing to do”), or emotion (“it just felt right”). When we allow external forces to determine our choices, our hearts (and ultimately our lives) evolve into a state of imbalance.  And, bringing us back to Chinese acupuncture theory, the heart as “leader of the body” is deemed to rule poorly.

When we allow external forces to determine our choices, our hearts (and ultimately our lives) evolve into a state of imbalance.

On the other hand, when our heart is in a state of alignment or balance, that is, our choices are aligned with our values, the emperor is said to be ruling wisely.

To rule wisely is to routinely make sound judgments, to learn from common experiences, and to embrace opportunities to grow into our potential by keeping an open mind.   All of these take courage, which affirms my belief that courage is the most important of all the virtues. After all, without courage, you cannot practice any other virtue consistently. You can be gracious for a while; you can be generous for a while; you can be patient for a while; or merciful for a while; even loving for a while. But, in the words of the late poet and author Maya Angelou, “…it is only with courage that you can be persistently and insistently kind and generous and fair.”

As Angelou adds, “One isn’t born with courage. One develops it. And you develop it by doing small, courageous things, in the same way that one wouldn’t set out to pick up 100 pound bag of rice. If that was one’s aim, the person would be advised to pick up a five pound bag, and then a ten pound, and then a 20 pound, and so forth, until one builds up enough muscle to actually pick up 100 pounds. And that’s the same way with courage. You develop courage by doing courageous things, small things, but things that cost you some exertion – mental and, I suppose, spiritual exertion.”

Without courage, you cannot practice any other virtue consistently.

Remember, you will never do anything in this world without courage. But courage is something more than a quality of the mind.  It is above all, a condition of the heart.  A condition you shape by making one intentional, wise, virtuous choice at a time.

Acupuncture needles optional.

 

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Copyright: alphaspirit / 123RF Stock Photo

John is a widely recognized expert in culture, strategy & individual and organizational change. The senior-curator for GeneralLeadership.com, he is an accomplished unconventional leader and proven status quo buster who has successfully led several multi-billion dollar transformation efforts. His award-winning work has been featured in a wide variety of articles and journals, including the Harvard Business Review. In addition to serving our nation as an active duty General Officer in the United States Air Force, John enjoys helping people learn to walk differently in the world so they can become the best version of themselves possible. He is blessed to be married to the most patient person on the planet and together, they have two amazing sons. You are encouraged to learn more about John at his website, www.MediocreMe.com

  • http://www.bensimonton.com/ Ben Simonton

    Great article John, but to call it heart is to obfuscate reality.

    The reality is that all people believe in the same good values and that their opposites are bad. The difference between us is that our standards for those good values vary based on our upbringing, our experiences. If I grew up in a family with little love, on a scale of zero to 10 I might have a standard of 2 for love while your family showed a lot of love so yours is a standard of 8. If we both view an event reflecting a 5 for love, I judge that as being really great and you judge it as being poor. So you disrespect it and don’t want much of it while I want more of it and respect it.

    Our value standards control our decision-making meaning how courageous, industrious, honest, open, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, respectful, etc. we are when we do things. They also control our choices of what to buy and do, where to live, where to work, who to marry, etc., etc. They also control how we react to what other people do including leaders in the workplace. Most importantly, they control how we react to things we value most like autonomy, competence, and relatedness, what studies by psychologists over 30+ years show motivate us all if they are simultaneously present.

    Values are the key to human performance. Calling them heart makes them almost unknowable. Calling them by their right names make them completely understandable thus making all people understandable and making leadership completely understandable.

  • http://www.bensimonton.com/ Ben Simonton

    Great article John, but to call it heart is to obfuscate reality.

    The reality is that all people believe in the same good values and that their opposites are bad. The difference between us is that our standards for those good values vary based on our upbringing, our experiences. If I grew up in a family with little love, on a scale of zero to 10 I might have a standard of 2 for love while your family showed a lot of love so yours is a standard of 8. If we both view an event reflecting a 5 for love, I judge that as being really great and you judge it as being poor. So you disrespect it and don’t want much of it while I want more of it and respect it.

    Our value standards control our decision-making meaning how courageous, industrious, honest, open, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, respectful, etc. we are when we do things. They also control our choices of what to buy and do, where to live, where to work, who to marry, etc., etc. They also control how we react to what other people do including leaders in the workplace. Most importantly, they control how we react to things we value most like autonomy, competence, and relatedness, what studies by psychologists over 30+ years show motivate us all if they are simultaneously present.

    Values are the key to human performance. Calling them heart makes them almost unknowable. Calling them by their right names make them completely understandable thus making all people understandable and making leadership completely understandable.

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  • Vonnie Snyder

    Thank you for this interesting article. In the past 18 months I have experienced the death of my husband, stepson and 17 year old family dog. I had a knee replacement in February and returned to my job working with people who have dementia and their family members in April. When my husband became ill I stepped down as Manager as I knew his care was my priority.

    The people I work with have tremendous courage as they deal with a disease that slowly transforms their lives in heartbreaking ways. And yet many of them stay strong as they take each day as it comes.

    For me, I have been fortunate to have wonderful friends and family members. It has not been easy though to reinvent myself. I am trying to remember who I was, recapture things I have lost and find new interests and hobbies. Does that take heart and courage? You bet – and some days I just don’t have it. But I too just take each day as it comes and try to find the positive.

    I agree with you and your wife. It is my heart I turn to to find the courage to welcome each day. Thank you for this message.

  • Jim Sanderson

    John,
    Your post absolutely resonates with my experience as a high school track & field coach over the last several years. Without exception, those athletes who are “naturally followed” by their team mates are the individuals who, not only are disciplined technicians in their chosen events, but demonstrate their courage by stepping out of the status quo and follow their heart in what is possible to achieve. By so doing, they inspire members of their team to take their performances to the next level. They show them how to do what has never been done before in terms of personal records and raise the bar of what is possible. In my opinion, a courageous heart is, without exception, the vital characteristic of all great leaders. Thanks for your well-stated post!

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