Wednesday, November 28

Searching For Courage: The Recruiting Animal

The Recruiting Animal recently wondered whether there are some psychological tests that measure courage. It seems to make sense, given that courage is frequently cited as an important trait among leaders.

UMSC General Charles C. Krulak includes it among his fourteen basic traits of effective leadership, distinguishing two forms: physical and moral. U.S. Senator John McCain cited its importance as an enforcing virtue for five other virtues common among exceptional leaders a few years ago. And Ben Dean, Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote an interesting piece to define courage as well, citing a great C.S. Lewis quote that it is “not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point."

However, before considering which tests may or may not measure courage, I can’t help but wonder if fearlessness might be the better measure for business leaders. You see, the two terms — courage and fearlessness — are not the same.

Author Dr. Thomas Hora once pointed out that courage relies on the willful resistance to fear whereas fearlessness, based on a higher understanding, is effortless. While courage can be rooted in anger; fearlessness is rooted in clarity of vision. While courageous acts can be performed by frightened people; those who are fearless remain focused on sense of purpose rather than self-concern.

In fact, I often infuse the concept of fearlessness while teaching or coaching public relations professionals, advertising copywriters, spokespeople, and politicians. It’s in my lessons, just not overtly so.

Three examples of fearlessness in communication.

• It comes up when I challenge public relations students (many of them working professionals) with ethical dilemmas such as their supervisor asking them to misrepresent information.

Most students, fearful of retaliation and damage to their careers, chose to say nothing. A few courageous students suggest reporting the incident. Usually no more than one will suggest speaking with the supervisor first, which requires fearlessness.

• It comes up when I teach advertising. While I always suggest that the first rule of advertising is that there are no rules, I always give them ten. The tenth is allowing for the freedom to fail. That’s fearlessness.

While courageous copywriters will stand by their convictions and push their ideas forward, sometimes out of fear of being wrong; fearless copywriters, those who aren't afraid to fail, keep the client in mind.

• It comes up while coaching spokespeople and politicians on surviving aggressive interviewers. The most common challenge is working past their fears — forgetting a valid point, being wrong, sounding silly, etc.

While courageous spokespeople might take on an aggressive interviewer, it won’t mask their inability to respond to tough questions. Unless they are fearless, they are likely to become defensive, aggressive, or even angry (one client once took a swing at me during a mock media interview session).

The fearless spokesperson or politician, even when they don’t know the answer, remains composed, calm, and confident because they know their message and remain poised enough to deliver.

Can we really test for courage and do we want to?

While I was unsuccessful in finding a proven psychological test this morning (though firefighters are sometimes tested for courage), I did find an article by Pat Weisner about employee interviewing techniques.

Weisner suggests the test is simple enough: place the applicant on uncomfortable ground with questions like “’I don't think you have the experience to handle this job.’ Or ‘You haven't done anything to demonstrate how you would get into the mind of our customers (or the people you might manage) because you haven't done anything to find out what I'm thinking.’”

These two questions, not surprisingly, mirror those asked by “overly aggressive” interviewers. You can catch questions that are framed up just like this on the news; these, in particular, are called needling.

While needling and other aggressive questions do not often get at the truth, they sometimes test the interviewee on their confidence in the subject matter and own sense of self worth. Given this, an aggressive mock media interview could possibly reveal a candidate’s level of fearlessness, but each would have to be customized to be effective.

To test for courage, on the other hand, you might be better off asking them to apply for Fear Factor. But even so, since fearlessness and courage can be taught, why bother? Maybe we need to teach it more; there seems to be ample fear around and about social media.



Hawksdomain on 11/28/07, 12:48 PM said...

Very interesting post, Rich. Although I would never dream of trying out for Fear Factor, I would have to say that I am fearless when it comes to standing up for what I believe in.

At my current job, I am questioning things on a daily basis. On more than one occasion, I have told the owner if he wants it handled in such a way, he will need to do it himself, as I will not. Of course, it is always important to give reasons when standing up for such a thing.

This is not a successful way to handle yourself in all jobs, however. I have been fired for simply questioning the legality of a task I was told to perform at my first job out of college. It took many years, but I am now proud of being fired from that job.

Being fearless is very often a difficult mindset to get into, and I will be the first to admit that I am not always successful at being fearless, those job interview questions you called 'needling' brought back some very scary memories! :)

Anonymous said...

Bloggers demonstrate fearlessness when they continue to express their, often controversial and combative, opinions.

To cringe at one's own words is fear or paranoia.

Blogging outspokenly will train a person to not fear. Even though the blogopathic opposers call you "liberal coward", "drive-by media", "hider behind computer", or "pajama clad Starbucks enthusiast".


Rich on 11/28/07, 12:59 PM said...

Hey Hawk,

Thank you. I think questioning legal issues is always successful, even if you are fired. Being fearless is effortless ... only choosing to be fearless is hard.

And it is okay to not always succeed in living fearlessly; that's just being human. :)

Hey Vaspers,

Thanks so much for the comment. I think some bloggers demonstrate fearlessness where as other are courageous.

The distinction between the two usually surfaces in how they handle criticism. The courageous blogger tends to be combative; the fearless blogger not so much.

I completely agree with you that participating in social media can help people become fearless much like public speaking and aggressive interviews.

All my best,

Anonymous said...


If an interviewer asked me either of those questions, my responses would be something like these: First question--Then why are you wasting both your time and mine? (since experience is on our resumes and the interviewer is obviously unprepared for the interview); Second Question--Then you obviously are neither very perceptive nor a very good listener (because when I interview, as soon as possible, I begin asking questions--actually, I begin asking questions even before the interview).

My point: I have both demonstrated courage (military and sports--often there is little difference between courage and foolishness--and fearlessness in both the corporate world (I challenge all unethical behavior) and in my business (I fire clients before doing anything dishonest, and fortunately that has happened only once).

Here is my reaction to needling: The needler is wasting my time with this foolishness and I don't tolerate fools. If we can't hire the right person for the right job without needling them, then we are in the wrong job. In my life, I have hired many and fired none. All did exactly as I expected, and during the interview I treated them only with respect and dignity, as every person deserves. I wouldn't want to work in a business that tolerated needling or giving an interviewee a difficult time to see how they react. That's what references and resumes show. We can ask tough questions without needling.

Rich, great post, but as you can see, this kind of corporate game-playing bugs the heck out of me. Furthermore, in my experience if one responds to needling fearlessly, they likely won't get the job as the last thing corporate managers want are people who stand up to them.

Rich on 11/28/07, 1:58 PM said...


Great points. I'm not a big advocate of needling especially (outside of teaching as it pertains to learning how to recognize and respond to such questions), but it is does represent a framed question as asked by interviewers in media and in recruitment. What I do, personally, is teach people how to respond those kinds of questions without becoming defensive.

Watch the news and you'll see needling all the time ... "Oh come on now, you don't really believe that do you?" Answering fearlessly is merely a matter of saying "Yes, I do" and then going back to reinforce the reasons why.

I agree that the corporate game playing is not very admirable, but if there is a lesson to be learned is that we cannot control the message (or the questions posed by others).

All we can really do is manage our own message ... responding defensively actually demonstrates a lack of management and give up power to the needler where as responding, fearlessly, only requires clarity of purpose.

I frequently see the difference online in how people react and interact with social media. There are several social media leaders who make me scratch my head sometimes and wonder ... do they realize that their reaction is overpowering the message they hope to convey? Most, I'm afraid, do not.

Also, courage is in the military in certainly a virtue that cannot be ignored and yet sometimes needs to be tempered because you're right, courage sometimes leads to recklessness. Fearlessness does not. There are many analogies that can be made to distinguish the two.

One of favorites is that the courageous leader rushes ahead in search of dragons. The fearless leader prepares for the event they find him.

All my best,

Anonymous said...


You are absolutely correct, and I recognize that my impatience with interviewers destroys my message. But in that particular instance, I don't care because whatever respect I might have had for the interview is now gone.

In other instances, especially within conversations such as these, we do need to respond reasonably and intelligently, less we lose any chance of making our point. In most instances, I work to respect others opinions, no matter how vehemently they might disagree with me. That said, I do not think anyone need tolerate personal attacks.

Finally, good for you. Preparing your students to deal with a variety of situations, good or bad, is the right thing to do.

Rich on 11/28/07, 2:22 PM said...


Hey, we're all human. I spoke to a interviewer who insisted that the only measure of public relations was the size of the rolodex.

In that instance, I completely neglected the fact I was being baited. How silly of me.

You are exactly right. We don't have to agree with people to understand them ... even if they make a personal attack. Sure, that sucks, but if we maintain our resolve, it will be them who looks foolish and not us for being baited.

And thank you. Some told me it has saved their lives (I know a few reporters who love to make people feel uncomfortable). I think that might be extreme, but I valued their feedback.


Jacob Summers on 1/11/09, 10:18 AM said...

Good post, Rich. I enjoyed every word, and agree, for the most part. While I think your tactics that nearly get people assaulting you may be a bit extreme, I think its needed these days. With a nation of people who react in fear, and a weakening sense of self worth based on said reactions, its important to find who the true leaders are in the mix. And you just pumped me up for my site. Still going strong.

Rich on 1/11/09, 1:27 PM said...


Glad you could find it useful. My tactics are never to encourage assaults, but it does happen at times. My tactics are simply to encourage people to think, and sometimes when we do that ... well, you know.

I also glad that I pumped you up for your site. That was the only intention. :D

All my best,


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