What Happened at Courage Camp

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A Pink Bikini on Hope Street

Courage Camp starts with a Pink Bikini. On Hope Street. This can’t possibly go wrong.

It is a cool summer evening, August 2017. The crisp blend of watermelon and mojito, imagined by a fine bartender, freshens the palate and opens senses to the conversation. We’re five women around the table. We’ve come to Bristol, Rhode Island to attend Courage Camp, a first-of-its-kind 2-day retreat for people eager to explore the idea and the practice of courage. A dozen more will join the next morning when Courage Camp begins. Around the table, there is small talk and laughter, and some early thoughts about courage. The thin line between courage and foolishness. The need to self-protect. How courage may be more than a character trait and have to do with… age – especially for women (do you struggle with morons at work? check out this Maxine Waters’ moment “reclaiming my time”). In the news, the Charlottesville violent events and the Google Echo chamber controversy raise questions. Are the neo-Nazis “courageous” to parade in plain sight? Is the Google engineer “courageous” to oppose his company’s diversity policy? While courage is seen as a virtue, maybe it is just “fearlessness”, independent from moral values.

Lois Courage-Maker Kelly

At this point, I’m impatient for Courage Camp to start. It took a leap of faith (courage?) to register as I don’t know what to expect, but it was done fast. Lois Kelly is one of the three organizers. I don’t know yet the other two, Daniel Doucette and Jillian Reilly, but I’m an absolute fan of Lois. A few years ago, Lois’ Rebels at Work, along with Peter Vander Auwera’s Corporate Rebels, have provided some decisive inspiration – and courage – that helped me change and bring change. We both participate in a global network of future of work practitioners committed to changing work: Change Agents Worldwide. Together we had contributed to a fun event back in 2015, a 24-hour Rebel Jam, in which I’d shared15 tips to resist a controlling culture”. Lois is a talented writer whose books I love. And I’ve had the immense pleasure to meet her in person several times since moving to Boston. Ahead of the Camp, I read a second time Lois’ blog post “Amplify Courage”.

The courage to share

Courage Camp is an experience I’m about to share with several people I know, which is both exciting and challenging. What I originally envisioned as a solo adventure evolved quickly into something else. First, my Twitter friend Simona registered and we decided to share a room there. Then my friend & colleague Agnes registered too and we switched to a triple room. Then my friend & colleague Zsuzsanna registered too – but there was no quadruple room :-) …Then my CAWW fellow Igo suggested me to live-blog. All right! Courage Camp won’t be a solitary event. Let’s return to what actually works best for me: sharing! It takes an additional step to expose oneself to people we know, but it’s worth it. Sharing makes courage more abundant.

A beautiful, spectacular, lovely, perfect place

Apologies for the adjectives overload. This place deserves it. Courage Camp takes place at Mount Hope Farm, nested on a vast saltwater farmland, with a history of more than 300 years. As we get to know our environment on the first morning, under a perfect blue sky, we are blown away by the beauty of the historical buildings, the manicured gardens, the exquisite forest trail leading to the Cove Cabin. There, on the shore of Mount Hope Bay, a charming authentic log cabin with large windows and a deck is an invitation to reflection and creativity. Sixteen chairs forming a circle are ready for us, on the lawn, under the trees next to the Cabin. Courage Camp starts.

Courageous stories

To explore what courage means, a good place to start is oneself. We all have taken courageous actions at some time, either big or small, as adults or as kids. "Where and how have I found myself being honest, speaking the truth and being the real me?" What are our courage stories?

They don’t come easy – and they are not shared easily – because courage is painful. It is a lot of work. Sometimes it has awful consequences. So, here we are, 16 of us, most of whom didn’t know each other an hour before, sharing our courage stories. Bodies are nerved; attention is high, tears well up sometimes. Words speak of confronting one’s own vulnerability, resisting abuse as a child, overcoming the loss of a loved one, speaking truth to power, and else.

These stories weave an essential piece of courage: the acceptance to be exposed. With Brene Brown, we all know now that showing vulnerability is an essential piece of courage.

Awareness is another piece. We need to “switch on awareness”: of ourselves, of what is important to us, of what happens around us. This space is all we have as individuals. Can we create, out of it, something different? Better? Have more of the good things, less of the bad ones?

It’s a successful start for Courage Camp. These authentic, moving stories reveal the humanity in each person, and bond the group together. We’re not perfect. We’re all struggling with something. We’re in the same boat.

Vocabulary of courage

As Courage Camp goes on, I catch words or expressions heard from the group. Each brings a different dimension to our understanding of courage:

  • Acceptance: We aim to be accepted by whatever group we want to belong to. “What is the rejection I'm afraid of?

  • Coeur (Heart): : The English word ‘courage’ comes from the French word ‘courage’ (pronounced differently) which comes from the Latin word ‘cor’ = ‘heart’

  • Exhilarating: “Leap without a net – it’s exhilarating

  • Fear: “Courage is not (or not just) fearlessness. Courage maybe actually doing something with fear

  • Flight: “Fight or Flight? Sometimes it takes more courage to flight

  • Friend: “My courage as a child triggered painful consequences. So I stopped using it. I need to reinvent my relationship with Courage and make it a friend

  • Fun: “Courage is not just fight and tears. It can be astute and a lot of fun

  • Imperative: “Change was an imperative. Something that had to be done, whatever it takes

  • Muscle: “Courage is a muscle. It can be trained

  • Pain: “the goal in life is to be alive, not to be happy. To be alive, we need to experience the diversity of our emotions

  • Precious: “Precious cargo” is what we protect while going through life. A job, relationship, family, reputation, financial security, inner peace, our own beliefs... likability (especially for women)… They can limit courage when we’re not aware of them

  • Soldier on: “It’s about soldiering on and not complaining”. Related: "I was trying to power this through"

  • Vitality: “Bravery is only one element of courage. Creativity, perseverance, optimism, vitality, enthusiasm, honesty with oneself are also part of it

More free, more me

Credit Simona E. Ralph

Credit Simona E. Ralph

One secret of courageous leaders is that they are “whole”: they integrate their identities in what they do. Whatever is important to them personally, they leverage it in what keeps them busy every day. They avoid a schizophrenic schism between who they appear to be and who they really are.

Being whole may not be easy but it provides a sound and rich base from where it is possible to grow. Being whole is a choice. It starts with self-awareness – honest conversations with oneself. It goes on with honest / difficult / courageous conversations with others, and acceptance of their feedback. Showing up more of oneself… Creating space for others to do the same… Accepting what is uncomfortable… Acknowledging the positive and negative emotions, giving oneself permission… Bit by bit, in a gradual process, a whole self can emerge. Passion, a powerful driver of courage, comes from there. It is a strong enabler in our journey, wherever we want to go – in our personal or professional life. What is it we want to say ‘yes’ to? What will keep us away from the most common “regrets of the dying”? How do we grow resilience and learn to bounce back, better and faster?

For some good read about wholeness, see Ayelet Baron’s book (referenced below) and blog posts.

"You're already the person you aspire to be. You're already there. "

Courage is not something outside of us. It is there. It isn't a skill. It is us.

From this understanding, our journey becomes pretty exciting. To become a (more) courageous leader, no need to be a superhero! (phew!). We just need to be more ourselves and show it more often; be more generous of us. In a way, we need to become a fullest version of ourselves.

Hail to Courage Camp 2018!

Courage Camp 2017 is now over and each of us have gone our separate ways, but the richness of the humanity I have seen and heard there will carry me for a very long time. I thank all my fellow participants for their honesty and I wish them all the best on their journey. May their path be as lovely and inspiring as the Mount Hope Farm forest trail. I’ll do my best with my path.

All my gratitude goes to Jillian, Daniel and Lois for putting this magnificent experience together. Through thoughtful individual and collective exercises, through role modelling – sharing their own stories and goals – they’ve enabled each of us to make a decisive step on the Courage journey.

Books, books, books

Many books were mentioned during Courage Camp. Here are a few:

So Far From Home: Lost and Found in Our Brave New World – Margaret J. Wheatley (2012)

…let me add this other book by the same author: Who Do We Choose To Be?: Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity – Margaret J. Wheatley (2017)

…speaking about sanity, this excellent book that I can’t stop recommending enough: Our Journey To Corporate Sanity: Transformational Stories from the Frontiers of 21st Century Leadership – Ayelet Baron (2016)

Stop Look Breathe Create – Wendy Ann Greenhalg (2017)

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life – Anne Lamott (1995)

Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization (Leadership for the Common Good) – Lisa Laskow Lahey (2009)

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most – D. Stone, B. Patton, S. Heene (2010)

Addendum: More blog posts about Courage Camp!

By Simona Ralph: "So, you think you're courageous?"

By Lois Kelly: "Honoring the courageous elephant matriarch

By Lisa Lillibridge: "Courage to me is...

By Daniel Doucette: "We all make magic: my lessons in courage"

By Janet Swaysland: "What I learned from Courage Camp"

By Jillian Reilly: "More free, more me"

By Debra Walsh: "Unpacking my A game at Courage Camp"

By Agnès Hardy-Boyer: "Walls and lollipops"

Credit Agnes Hardy-Boyer

Credit Agnes Hardy-Boyer