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Intellectual Courage

“Courage is always greatest when blended with meekness; intellectual ability is most admirable when it sparkles in the setting of a modest self-distrust; and never does the human soul appear so strong as when it foregoes revenge and dares to forgive an injury. “

Edwin Hubbel Chapin


When we think of bravery or courage, most of us probably don’t think of the workplace.

Instead, we think of tackling something physically dangerous or doing something in our personal lives that makes us socially vulnerable – whether that’s saying something unpopular, challenging an established way of doing things, or offering up something brand new for criticism.

But the courage to be vulnerable is tremendously valuable in business.

It’s a trait many commentators like to call “intellectual bravery.”  And for some business leaders and entrepreneurs, it marks the difference between success and failure.

Intellectual Courage

Intellectual courage is a willingness to disagree, dissent, or challenge the status quo in a setting of social risk in which you could be embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way.

When intellectual courage disappears, organizations develop patterns of willful blindness. Bureaucracy buries boldness, and efficiency crushes creativity. From there, the status quo calcifies, and stagnation sets in.

The responsibility for creating a culture of intellectual courage lies in leadership.

As a business leader and entrepreneur, you set the tone, create the vibe, and define the prevailing norms. Whether or not your company has a culture of intellectual courage depends on your ability to establish a pattern of rewarded rather than punished vulnerability.

Creating a Culture of Intellectual Courage

You can’t foster intellectual courage at work without building a culture of psychological safety first. First coined by William A. Khan, psychological safety is

“being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career.”

Beyond psychological safety, there are several ways leaders can foster intellectual courage within their teams.

  • Don’t intimidate – Many leaders have no idea they’re unintentionally creating feelings of fear or intimidation in their team. But little things, like cutting people off when they’re talking, responding to a suggestion with a joke, or ignoring someone’s comment, can have a significant impact.
  • Allocate dissent – Encourage certain members of your team to actively search for flaws or challenges in your ideas and discussion points.
  • Respond positively to bad news – If an employee ventures an idea that’s disruptive or shares lousy news, show a positive response and pay attention to body language. For example, try to face the person, show them you’re listening, nod, and smile.
  • Explain rejected feedback – Don’t just reject or gloss over a team member’s input or suggestions. Instead, carefully explain why you won’t be adopting it or pursuing the matter.
  • Weigh in last – Be aware of your position of power. Always listen to your team’s contributions first before registering your point of view.

The Bible

1 Chronicle 22:13 says.

“Then you will prosper, if you take care to fulfill the statutes and judgments with which the LORD charged Moses concerning Israel. Be strong and of good courage; do not fear nor be dismayed”.

Isaiah 41:6 says.

“Everyone helped his neighbor, And said to his brother, “Be of good courage!”

Psalm 31:24 says.

“Be of good courage, And He shall strengthen your heart, All you who hope in the LORD.”

Good courage.  Part of being strong and of “good courage” means trusting in the Lord Jesus as our true source of strength.

In the Bible, the use of “good courage” stories was about people who didn’t have all the answers for the challenges before them. But the Bible writers counseled the people forward anyway and instructed them to act in faith.

Just like those in the Bible, we seldom have all the answers to our personal and business challenges. But God promises that when we turn to Him for guidance, we will succeed.

God is all-powerful and all-knowing. He has the answers and the strength we need to face any challenge before us. So, build intellectual courage in your workplace and rely on God to use that courage for good.