For at least 2,500 years, courage has been seen as a virtue.  The famous Greek philosopher, Aristotle, viewed courage as the marker of moral excellence, noting that it was the virtue which moderates our instincts toward recklessness on one hand and cowardice on the other.

Aristotle believed that a courageous person fears only those things that are worthy of fear.  In other words, courage means discerning and thus knowing what to fear, and then responding appropriately to that fear.

The brilliant British comedy series “Yes Minister” took a different, much more pragmatic and cynical view of courage.  When Sir Humphrey Appleby (as Permanent Secretary for the Department of Administrative Affairs) thought his minister was about to make a big error, he would raise one eyebrow and say, “that would be a courageous decision, minister”. In Sir Humphrey Appleby’s world, courage was not a virtue, as the following exchange demonstrates:

Sir Frederick 'Jumbo' Stewart: There are four words to be included in a proposal if you want it thrown out.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Complicated. Lengthy. Expensive. Controversial.  And if you want to be *really* sure that the Minister doesn't accept it, you must say the decision is “courageous”.

Bernard Woolley: And that’s worse than “controversial”?

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Oh, yes! “Controversial” only means “this will lose you votes”. “Courageous” means “this will lose you the election”!

(Yes Minister, 1980, “The Right to Know”)

Yes Minister (public domain poster)

It seems that courage may be going out of fashion.  At face value, schools seemed far more innovative and open to courageous experimentation in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.  These days the general rule seems to be to play safe, achieving the often-mediocre outcomes set by external bureaucrats which are measured by standardised testing and dreary, excessively quantitative questionnaires whose only justification is so-called “accountability”.

Of course, courage should not be reckless; it needs to be based on sound research and experience.  One of my “heroes” in education is the brilliant German educator, Kurt Hahn, who was instrumental in establishing the United World Colleges, the Duke of Edinburgh Award, Outward Bound, Round Square, Gordonstoun School in Scotland, Schule Schloss Salem in Germany (in partnership with Prince Max von Baden), and indirectly, the International Baccalaureate (IB).

In a speech in 1965, Kurt Hahn spoke about achieving the right balance between sound experience and experimentation in these words: “To make my meaning clearer I will recall a conversation, which the late founder - the real founder of the Salem School - Prince Max of Baden had with a visitor. His enthusiastic guest asked him the following question, “what are you proudest of in your beautiful schools?” He said, ‘I am proudest of the fact that if you go the length and breadth of the schools, you will find nothing original in them.  It is stolen from everywhere, from the British public schools (you call them private schools), from the Boy Scouts, from Plato, from Goethe’.  Then the enthusiastic guest turned to him and said, ‘But oughtn’t you to aim at being original?’  Then Prince Max rather abruptly answered, ‘Well, you know, it is in education like in medicine, you must harvest the wisdom of the thousand years.  If you ever came across a surgeon who wants to take out your appendix in the most original manner possible, I would strongly advise you to go to another surgeon.’ (From Kurt Hahn’s Address at the Founding Day Ceremony of the Athenian School 21 November 1965 Danville, California).

One of Kurt Hahn’s (many) enduring legacies is the global network of 18 United World Colleges (UWCs), probably the gold standard of international education today.  The UWC movement was established in 1962 with the opening of Atlantic College in Wales, initially to build peace at the height of the Cold War by bringing together 16-18 year olds from around the world (and from both sides of the Iron Curtain) into boarding schools to build bridges of understanding.  The concept was arguably more than courageous – it was audacious..  The selection of students was (and still is) conducted on the basis of merit, with the vast majority receiving either full or partial scholarships raised through National Committees worldwide.

It is difficult to see the type of courage that established the UWCs at work today – the courage to build a world-wide network of schools based on a set of philosophical ideals, independent of students’ ability to pay.

There are rare exceptions, and their rarity makes them notable.  For example, the school where I serve as Board Chair, Djarragun College, was established more recently according to an altruistic philosophy not unlike the UWCs.  Seeking to overcome discrimination, lack of opportunity, disempowerment, unemployment and erosion of culture, the school provides subsidised education for disadvantaged Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.  Many of these students have no alternative access to education because of their remote location, poverty, family situations, violence, or quite commonly, a combination of several or all of these factors.  

Schools such as the United World Colleges or Djarragun College are rare exceptions in today’s educational world.  Perhaps this explains why it is so hard to find courage mentioned in newer books on educational leadership.  It is easy to find extensive discussions on risk (usually as something to be minimised), but not courage.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I include myself in that criticism.  In the book I authored for school boards, “Optimal School Governance”, there is only one mention of courage (on pp.119-120), and paradoxically it seems to encourage timidity: “When the recommendations of the Finance Committee are brought to the board, it is very rare that the recommendations are not accepted. This is understandable as trustees have a fiduciary duty to maintain the school’s financial viability (i.e., not send the school bankrupt), so to act against the Finance Committee’s advice and recommendations represents a somewhat courageous act on the part of trustees.” The guilt I feel over omitting a full discussion of the importance of courage in the book is a prime motivator for writing this article!).

Literature suggests that courage is required of soldiers, athletes, corporate leaders, and (notwithstanding Sir Humphrey Appleby’s machinations) a few rare politicians.  However, courage is rarely mentioned as a positive attribute of school leaders or their governing boards.  This seems to be an absurd omission.  It is hard to imagine any school leader or board getting through a month, let alone a year, without having to make decisions that demand courage.  Sometimes this requires the courage to make important but necessary decisions that will distress some constituents.  In more extreme cases (which are increasing in frequency in some places), it may include the courage to deal with physical violence, verbal attacks, character assassination, social media rumour-mongering, or direct challenges to the school’s essential mission, purpose or identity.  In the wider context, courage for school leaders and boards includes standing up to changing societal values if these are in conflict with the school’s firm values position or mission.

Perhaps surprisingly, it also takes immense courage to be humble.  It takes courage to admit that you are not always right, especially when you in a leadership position in a school.  Similarly, it takes courage for school board members to admit that they can’t always anticipate every possibility, that they can’t solve every problem, that they can’t control every variable, that they can’t always be congenial, that they will make mistakes and, indeed, that they are mere mortals.  It takes courage to admit these things to others, and even more courage to admit them to yourself.

In a 2020 article for Harvard Business School, Matt Gavin wrote “A deep and abiding sense of courage is a quality that separates good leaders from great ones.  Research shows that professionals who demonstrate courage in the workplace not only perform better, but influence their peers to act with bravery and drive organizational success”.  In my mind, this highlights the importance of school leaders and boards working effectively in close, creative, courageous partnership.  Neither the United World Colleges nor Djarragun College could ever have become successful without close working relationships between governance and management, working together towards shared, unified goals with the courage to stay focussed on achieving their ambitious goals in the face of significant obstacles and powerful opposition.

Irrespective of the amount of courage an individual possesses, not everyone is in the position of courageously starting an international network of schools or a school which focuses on closing the gap between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous communities.  How, then, should a school leader (and a board) exercise courage in the everyday environment of a typical school?  Some suggestions are as follows:

1.    Lead passionately by example

Leaders are people that others follow.  People follow leaders they respect, and respect flows from “walking the talk”.  In other words, people respect those who show servant leadership by only asking others to do what they would be prepared to do themselves.  Leading by example also requires passion if the leadership is to be effective.  Passion flows easily when someone is committed to their objectives and believes sincerely in their importance.  It follows from this that authenticity is required to lead by example and exude infectious passion.

2.    Think strategically

Every action taken in a school – courageous or not – should be strategically coherent in enhancing the school’s mission (enduring purpose), vision (strategic priorities) and values (ethical position).  In one of my own headships, I recall having to summon up the courage to announce to the staff one morning that during its meeting the previous evening, the board had resolved to establish a cemetery in the school grounds for the burial of those “who loved the school dearly”.  Making that announcement was my duty, but not one that moved the school forward strategically.  A strategic plan provides an excellent foundation for coherent, focussed, mission-driven, courageous, decision-making.  

3.    Take ‘acceptable’ risks

The word “acceptable” is not intended to be a weasel word here.  Different school communities, school leaders and school boards vary in their risk appetites, whether the risk is financial, strategic, operational or philosophical.  Courage means taking well-considered actions right up to the limit of risk acceptability, but not beyond – that is what is meant by ‘acceptable’ risks.

I love this quote by the US writer, Elaine Welteroth: “I realised that if we aren’t vigilant, we can move through our entire lives feeling smaller than we actually are – by playing it safe, by unconsciously giving away our power, by dimming our radiance, by not recognising there is always so much more waiting for us on the other side of fear”.  

Those words – living on the other side of fear – would be a great motto for school leaders and their boards as they work together to chart an exciting strategically-focussed future for the school in a way honours its history, mission, purpose, vision, values, ethos and philosophy.

Courage is a not a legal requirement of school leadership or board governance, but it is an immense help in making leadership and governance more effective.

-Dr Stephen Codrington 

This article is adapted from a paper I wrote that first appeared in “International School Magazine” in Spring 2024 (April) under the title “A plea for courage in international education leadership”. (pp.9-11).   If you are using a large screen, screenshots of that article can be seen in these links: Part 1 and Part 2.

Additional reading:

Aristotle’s view of courage

Djarragun College 

Gordonstoun School 

International Baccalaureate 

Kurt Hahn 

Outward Bound 

Round Square 

Schule Schloss Salem 

The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award 

United World Colleges 

Welteroth E (2019) More than Enough. New York: Viking. 

Yes Minister 

We support schools in the process of strategic planning at whatever level suits the school’s needs.

To understand more about estimating, balancing and managing risk, worksop such as OSG-S6 Overcoming the Challenges of Governance and Minimising Risk and OSG-S7 The Board’s Fiduciary and Non-fiduciary Duties should be very helpful.

Advice on strategic planning, risk, as well as other aspects of effective school leadership and governance is also provided in the book “Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.

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