On January 26, 1945, just weeks after receiving a battlefield promotion from staff sergeant to second lieutenant, Audie Murphy found himself a company commander in Holtzwihr, France. With temperatures in the teens and 24 inches of snow on the ground, Murphy’s unit was down to 19 of its original 128 men. Facing a German tank attack, Murphy ordered his men to retreat and then stood alone and wounded atop a burning half-track, manning a machine gun and directing artillery fire into the enemy position 100 feet in front of him. Asked by the artillery officer how close the Germans were to him, Murphy snapped back, “Hold the phone and I’ll let you talk to one.” The artillery fire and subsequent counter attack led by Murphy successfully repelled the Germans, and Audie was awarded the Medal of Honor for his courage under fire.
Murphy’s example of valor is uncommon, but it’s important to understand that his actions were not motivated out of a desire for personal advancement or notoriety. He was just 19 years old that January of 1945, having lied about his age and enlisted in the Amy at age 16. He didn’t set out to become a leader or a hero; he simply wanted to serve his country and protect the men in his unit. Prior to his promotion to lieutenant, Audie had already earned a Distinguished Service Cross and two Silver Stars as an enlisted man. In his later years he summed up his perspective on leadership succinctly, “Lead from the front.”
Military heroics such as Murphy’s provide obvious examples of courage. However, there is much more to courage than performing brave deeds. Courage manifests itself in many forms and in small, everyday ways. Sometimes courage is demonstrated on the field of battle where all the world may eventually bear witness. But other times it’s demonstrated in the boardroom or conference room, before colleagues and superiors. Sometimes courage is tested in the face of overwhelming peer pressure or public opinion, and sometimes it is quietly demonstrated in defense of others who are not even aware.
It’s not enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what’s required. – Winston Churchill
No one would argue that courage is often the catalyst for action. But at times, it also takes courage to be patient, to stand down rather than act immediately, especially when confronted with adversity. Knowing when to intervene and when to let events run their course comes with experience and confidence. Courageous leaders calmly assess the situation and explore alternatives, even as others respond emotionally, demanding swift action. This measured response to adversity requires discipline and the courage.
Courageous leaders take the initiative and act in the best interest of others, regardless of their own position or level of authority. They don’t wait to be told, or (necessarily) wait to ask permission. I once worked for someone who taught me that when confronted with a crisis, it’s better to act and be wrong than just sit back and do nothing. I believe that to be generally true, but it’s also important to note that sometimes acting in the best interest of others means allowing them to fail so that they might learn from the experience. Courageous leaders make decisions that serve the greatest long term good, even at the expense of short term personal gain.
Courage keeps trudging along regardless of obstacles, sometimes in the face of fear, but always out of conviction for what is right, for what needs to be done. A popular quote states that character is revealed in the actions taken when no one is looking. I would add that courage provides the resolve.
Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, “I will try again tomorrow.” – Mary Anne Radmacher