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April 2012
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Courage in Women and Entrepreneurs (Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener, Part 2)

Posted by: Alex Linley


To mark the UK release of his latest fascinating book, The Courage Quotient: How Science Can Make You Braver, I caught up again with the “Indiana Jones of Positive Psychology”, long time friend and Capp collaborator, Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener. In this second interview, we focused our attention on how courage manifests, and what might be different about it, in both women and entrepreneurs. See below for what Robert has to say about the findings from his research for The Courage Quotient:


AL: In your research on courage, did you find differences in the courage expressed by men and women?


RBD: I think that most people tend to believe that courage – at least stereotypically- is largely the domain of men. Fables, myths and modern movies all favour a fairly macho action-hero style of bravery. But movies such as Erin Brokovich, about a determined whistleblower, suggests that there is a place at the table for women as well. While researching The Courage Quotient I found a number of studies that suggest that women perform bravery as well as – and sometimes better than - their male counterparts. For instance, women are more likely to donate organs and are more likely to serve in risky overseas volunteer positions. It may be that men are placed more frequently in positions that require physical bravery – indeed, men overwhelmingly outnumber women in the military, police forces and in fire departments - but women do well with moral and social forms of bravery. [AL notes: We know from our work with the Fire Service that part of this difference is a result of different physical requirements in the role, which can be difficult, but not impossible, to surmount.]


AL: Why do you think this is? What impact does this have on male and female stereotypes in society do you think?


RBD: Men, because of their larger average size and access to testosterone, have long been at the centre of action especially when that action has been physical. In addition, wars and other physical feats tend to make for good narratives, so stories ranging from epic poems to modern movies tend to lionize the stereotypical form of male bravery. We tend to overlook that women have long been brave, but that women’s bravery has historically been outside of the battlefield. Women have spoken up as courageous advocates and often been the defenders of values. You see modern examples ranging from Benazir Bhutto to Mother Theresa to Maria Montessori. But it is more common that we overlook female forms of bravery because either 1) we do not agree with the values they espouse, or 2) their actions are often less “flashy” than those on the battlefield; taking the form of discussion, passing laws, and pioneering new fields.


AL: What about courage in organisations? Do you think that women need to use courage differently to men in order to succeed in organisational leadership?


RBD: I think that women – especially those in leadership – need to start thinking about themselves as courageous. I am not sure that it matters that their courage is similar to or different from male courage. What I really think matters is that female leaders truly accept the mantle of bravery. In many ways, women have an additional burden in the workplace. It is no secret that women shoulder a disproportionate amount of household and childcare responsibilities, that women are more likely to take time off following childbirth and that women in leadership work against the grain of a traditionally male-centric position. This means, in many ways, that women have to be able to advocate for themselves, speak boldly, and take risks. They will be scrutinized differently and are more prone to have life outside of work interfere with work. At every turn, I see potential for women leaders to bring bravery to the table.


AL: How about courage and entrepreneurship? Did you find that entrepreneurs demonstrate a particular type of courage?


RBD: I am particularly fascinated by entrepreneurship.  I have a hunch that those who have an entrepreneurial spirit are actually genetically wired a bit different and are more prone to be extroverted and risk taking. To make the leap into starting up a business, I believe that people also have to be possessed of a certain degree of optimism and self-confidence. It is an interesting case where multiple strengths might converge to create a new meta-strength (let’s just label it “entrepreneurialism”). I think we can learn much from small business owners and those who jump from start-up to start-up. They likely have a very high tolerance for uncertainty and a very high level of confidence that they can handle new situations and even small mistakes and failures. I think the entrepreneurial mindset is a terrific test case for courage.


AL: Based on your findings, do you think anyone can develop the courage to be an entrepreneur?


RBD: I would like to be able to say “yes, anyone can develop courage.” Even the sub-title of my book is “How science can make you braver.” I do believe that - that people have the ability to overcome personal limitations and learn skills around emotion management and other techniques that can make one braver. I might stop short at claiming we can turn someone into an entrepreneur though. Entrepreneurs happen to have a values-based mission that makes taking a risk seem worthwhile. They tend to have an optimistic disposition such that they believe that their idea will become a success. Finally, they have a huge tolerance for uncertainty and can thrive in an anxious state that causes other people to freeze up. Rather than trying to radically transform someone into an entrepreneur I would recommend the strengths strategy that I have often heard from Capp: collaboration and complementary strengths partnerships. If a person is weak in one area, I believe they can counteract this weakness by collaborating with someone for whom it is a natural strength. That is, generally speaking, a good message about courage. Courage need not be an individual phenomenon. We tend to be a little braver and a little less inhibited when we are in groups and when we get support.


AL: Finally, a big question for us to conclude with, what would you like to see people achieve with courage in the 21st century?


RBD: I love this question! I think of courage as being the shortest route to the good life. I think a full and engaged life includes risks and even occasional small failures. In the coming years we will collectively be faced with a number of challenges related to the environment, the structure of capitalism, and ethnic, religious and political conflicts. I believe that it is courage that allows individuals, groups and communities to stand up and demand change, to work for reform, and to make the big changes. I think the courageous leaders of successful movements, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., are terrific examples of how we have to be willing to take personal risks to make worthwhile change.


Thank you, Robert. As regular readers of The Capp Blog will be aware, Robert has been a diligent responder to your comments and questions. Please let us know any more by using the Comment box below!

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4 Responses to Courage in Women and Entrepreneurs (Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener, Part 2)

  • Judy Krings says:

    This is one of the best blogs I have ever read, on courage or any topic. It really helped me understand my whole professional career now in its 4th decade! As a shy, careful, “Be Good” mindset young woman, I learned the hard way how to morph into a “Get Better” gal who KNEW what she wanted and went after it. At age 23, I opened up my mind to getting rid of an abusive relationship frought with real frets. After I got that flywheel going, with the help of tons of Army GI’s supporting me (and offering to off! my tormentor!), I harnessed strengths and away I went. Till this article, I had not conceptualized what a huge roll friends payed in my life’s journey.

    As Robert says, I didn’t recognize it as courage one iota. But looking back, it really was. That and a bull-headed tenacity that I WOULD get to travel, no matter how little money I had. After my Army job was done, alone, I backpacking all over Europe and got a visa to Russia and Czechoslovakia, still behind the iron curtain. I think I was gone a month and spent $36.00. Yes it was 1974, but I played a game to see how little money I would spend. And I did eat.

    Next came the risk to start a private practice when WI had no insurance reimbursement. My goal? To get my individual state, and then the whole USA, to change the laws so our insurance companies would cover mental health in parity with other services. It took years for the later, but we got it done! Yes, again, it took teams.

    Enough of my journey, but Robert’s new book helped put a perspective n my life that I never had before. To rethink my life and smile. Best courage? (And I would love to know yours!) Saving a man’s life. It was just after AIDS was an epidemic. Everyone stood around yelling, “Someone do something!” when I came upon the scene, yet no one had done a thing. I never thought it was brave. Still don’t. But I did CPR with my mouth, as back then, that was the norm. After two rounds, the guy choked a breath. yes, I got an aids test after that. I called he hospital anonymously the next day, and the man was doing fine. No brain damage, whew! That was the scariest part as I fear he could have been brain damaged being out so long.

    OK, hoping to hear your courage stories and comments. GREAT interview!

  • Alex and Robert, thank you for this conversation. I just read about a trio of studies by Yale professor Victoria Briscoll that indicates female leaders talk less than male leaders at meetings because it jeopardizes their likeability, power, and effectiveness.

    See studies.

    To quote someone’s paraphrasing of the results from one study: “…research subjects were asked to assess hypothetical male and female CEO candidates –one who tends to express opinions in meetings and the other who tends to keep opinions to him/herself. The effects — the ratings by both male and female subjects — were troubling. The talkative male CEO candidate was rated as more suitable for leadership than the less talkative one on measures including whether or not the person should be hired, is entitled to power, and competence. BUT for the female CEO, the exact opposite pattern was seen. The female CEO candidate who withheld their opinions were rated more highly than the female candidate who tended to express their opinions.”

    I think women leaders need courage to deal with the potential stigma of being a female leader!


  • Alex and Robert,
    Thank you for shining a light on a topic that in my opinion needs to be better understood. Your interview is a great teaser to the book, and I look forward to reading it.

    It’s been my experience that many women are not taught about being courageous, and in fact, have not really thought about themselves as such. Since the promotion of your book, I have started asking people about what they think being courageous means, and I’m surprised at how many people (both men and women) have never given it any thought. When they did think about it, they mentioned things like “fighting cancer, war, and surviving the death of a child.” While these are definitely courageous, I was surprised that people didn’t think about entrepreneurship, relocating to another country, helping others, etc.

    I look forward to learning more and seeing more research on courage.

  • Judy Krings says:

    I really enjoyed your comments, Julie and Kimberley. Thanks for helping me add to a presentation I am giving to women in management this summer. And what powerful question to ask at the beginning of the meeting: “What does courageous mean for you? When were you courageous?” I can’t wait to see if anyone writes or speaks entrepreneurial-ship. Many thanks!

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