Where Courage Comes From and Which Leaders Have It

By Lisa Petrilli

The picture you see is one I took personally on the Antietam Battlefield.  The Battle of Antietam was fought on September 17, 1862 near Sharpsburg, Maryland and, according to Wikipedia, it was the first major battle of the Civil War to take place on Northern soil and was the bloodiest single-day battle in American history, with about 23,000 casualties.

The picture itself was taken at Sunken Road, a site of the battle that became known as “Bloody Lane” because of the river of blood that flowed from it following a 3.5 hour battle that left 5,600 men dead and piled as high as the sunken valley along the 800 yard strip of road.

As a history lover who was born in Boston, surrounded by the Freedom Trail and everything it stood for, whose grandmother was born in a home behind Paul Revere’s, I find myself in historical places on many occasions – typically overcome with emotion.

Yes, you read that right.  I’m the one you’ll find sitting in the Old North Church (One if by Land, Two if by Sea) with tears in my eyes, or sitting at a battle site like this one overcome with grief at what it must have been like to experience such a horrifying sight – more than 5000 dead men along this small lane – and to have somehow simply kept going…

The word that always comes to my mind in these situations is courage.  It’s usually the ideas of sacrifice and loyalty that makes the tears roll but it’s the thought of the courage invoked by leaders and warriors in the face of death that genuinely inspires me.

What I found fascinating in looking up the definition of courage was that there are different traditions in Eastern and Western culture about what courage represents, and even the Catholic Church has its own clear definition – Fortitude – one of the four cardinal virtues.  What struck me the most was the description hailing from Eastern traditions: “The Tao De Ching states that courage is derived from love and explains: “One of courage, with audacity, will die. One of courage, but gentle, spares death. From these two kinds of courage arise harm and benefit.”

Courage is derived from love.

Love of country, love of ideals, love of family, romantic love.  It all makes sense when you put it into the perspective of love.

Think about successful leaders over time – leaders who made the world better inch by inch (or in some cases land grab by land grab) – you’ll start to realize that they had powerful convictions that drove them, yes, but that the reason they were successful was that it was love driving those powerful convictions.  It was the love that tempered the recklessness to bring benefit and not harm.

Do you see that in leaders today?  I do. But not necessarily on the world’s stage. 

Rather, I see it in people like my friend Tim who I wrote about in Leadership is a Gift: 4 Signs You’re Worthy, who donated his kidney to someone he’d never met because he has come to feel real love for organ donation initiatives in the wake of his daughter’s death and subsequent organ donation.  He works tirelessly sharing his daughter’s story, facing pain each time he does so, in order to inspire others. Tim is a courageous leader.

Leaders like Tim, who take risks borne of love and overcome hurdles in a quest towards an inspiring vision, are the kinds of leaders I wish to work with and desire to emulate.

How about you? Please share your thoughts about courage, and leaders you know who are demonstrating it, at our next #LeadershipChat on Election Night, tomorrow night, November 2nd at 8:00 pm Eastern Time.  Steve Woodruff and I hope to see you there!

As always, please feel free to share your initial thoughts and insights with me here.  I value your comments and appreciate you taking the time to respond.

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  1. Your post inspired an interesting thought process. I see leaders as taking that first step when no others will. As children who would climb (test) the tree first, go over the rickety fallen tree over the brook first? Why go first? Why do what others have NOT done before? When presented with with this what motivates a person to go first? You mention several motivations, however I do think there is some of the “if no one else will, I will” ~ justified by we need to move things along. “If we don’t cross the brook now, we will not be home in time for tea,” Interesting how there just always seems to be that one person in a group willing to take that lead, go first, move things along. In my group of peers I had to join twitter first, no one else was willing to take the Social media jump, and I am still being watched to see if I fall in the brook :-)

    • Caroline,

      I love the fresh perspective you’re bringing here – looking at it from desire and possibly having nothing to do, necessarily, with the world around us. Just realizing there’s something to be done and no one else is doing it. I love that – and I see in it the core of the entrepreneurial spirit. Good for you for crossing that brook – your peers need to catch up instead of waiting for you to fall, methinks! Thanks so much for sharing your insights!

  2. Lisa,
    So interesting to read your post today. Over the weekend I had the opportunity to see Hilary Swank’s new movie “Conviction”. Let me first say that I think you will enjoy this movie, if for no other reason than it takes place in MA.
    It is a funny thing about words. When I first read the title, I assumed that it was only referring to someone being convicted to prison; however, while that is true, the larger meaning of the title is the conviction of love and courage that Betty Anne Waters displays as she fights to prove her brother’s innocence. It is a true story which makes it even more powerful.
    I understand the emotion you describe when you speak about visiting historical places. I, too, have felt this. I remember standing in the Nazi Parties’ Rally Grounds in Nuremberg, it was Rosh Hashanah 2003 or standing in Arlington National Cemetary and marveling at the Eternal Flame and looking out over the sea of graves of our fallen.
    You asked about our Leaders today who demonstrate courage. That is a tough question. I am anxious to see what other readers have to offer. Last evening I watched 60 Minutes and my heart was breaking watching the segment about Newton, Iowa. I am sure many throughout our country wonder where the courage is these days.
    Thanks for raising these issues…
    Judy Helfand´s last blog post ..In My Own Shoes – 10 Toe Tips I learned this Month

    • Judy,

      I really appreciate you sharing how this touches you emotionally as well. Your experience on Rosh Hashanah must have been particularly poignant.

      I agree with you about it being a tough question – I really struggle with it. Please try to join us tomorrow night if you can, I too am anxious to hear what others think. I know I’ll learn a lot and be enlightened in many ways – I always am with the #LeadershipChat group. :) All the very best…

  3. Lisa! I had no idea you were a fellow history buff!

    I went to Boston over the Summer and my friend gave in and led me on part of The Freedom Trail. I ranted and raved because the site of the Boston Massacre was literally at the bottom of a huge construction project. I was so mad. However, there were many moments that had me near tears, including finding the tombstones of Mr. and Mrs. Wheatley, the couple who owned African American poet Phillis Wheatley. I wrote my thesis about her, so it was like spotting a celebrity, and yet knowing they were slaveholders, it was also humbling in many other ways.

    As far as leaders go, I wonder if we recognize leaders in our own time. Very few people recognized the power of Abraham Lincoln’s leadership when battles like Antietam were raging. Yet once he died, everyone came to realize how important and powerful he had been. I wonder if people truly appreciated leaders like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and RFK.

    Perhaps our leaders of today are right under our noses, but we can only see them when they are gone. I hope that’s not the case.

    Phew. Great post. See what happens when you get me going on history? :)
    Marjorie Clayman @margieclayman´s last blog post ..I’m a snob when it comes to Twitter snobs

    • Margie,

      I love what happens when I get you going on history! I just hate to hear that your friend had to “give in!”

      I’m not familiar with that poet (sadly) – that must have been incredibly moving for you giving the amount of time you likely spent studying and writing about her.

      And I think your insight about us having a different perspective on people after they’ve died is probably true in many ways. I’m looking forward to others’ thoughts on the leaders of today at the chat tomorrow night – juxtaposed against the election I suspect it will be somewhat revealing. Thanks for the kind words and for taking the time to share! I genuinely appreciate it. :)

    • I’d like to expand on ” leaders under your nose”, Yes, IMO this is probably the case and will we recognize them? I sincerely hope so. Leadership qualities are the same no matter what, but will the leaders of today come from the political space, will they be heads of state, CEO’s of mega companies, creators of a green movement or will they be individuals sitting at home on their computer commanding an enormous presence online?

      Has history been accurate in remembering the real leaders? Was it really the power behind the throne, so to speak, or was it really the general (not the remembered and celebrated Leader) who made all the strategic and tactical decisions and won the battles?

      Just a little more for you to think about as you cruise history.
      CASUDI´s last blog post ..DESIGNING ACTION &amp SETTING GOALS

  4. The aspect of love is an interesting one. There is a saying that, paraphrased goes like this: “We sit in the shade of a tree we did not plant.”

    Love compelled the planter of that tree to do so. (S)He did so, knowing that (s)he would not be around to see the tree grow to maturity, but their love for humanity prompted them to plant it anyway.

    When we can set aside our own selfish reasons for doing something, ironically, blessings flow to us regardless.

    Great post, Lisa!
    @mckra1g´s last blog post ..mckra1g- @chameleonsdream TYVM Heres an economic deconstruction re voter apathy- http-bitly-cbLP6R math vote

    • Thank you for the kind words, Molly – and thank you for sharing the quote and insight. It’s beautiful and so relevant to the topic.

      I agree with you completely about blessings – they come when we give to the universe!

      It was great to see you on the chat last night!

  5. One of my favorite new lines Lisa: Courage is derived from love. Lot’s to chew on here. Thanks.
    Robbin Phillips´s last blog post ..All you need is love- purpose and a sense of humor Okay and sleep


  1. […] what my co-moderator Lisa Petrilli wrote this week about courage. Then join us Tuesday night (8 pm ET) for #LeadershipChat on Twitter (hint: one very easy way to […]

  2. […] Lisa Petrilli wonders where courage comes from and which leaders have it. Amazing post. No, I’m not saying that just because her image is a photo she took at Antietam. […]

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