Courage in Unlikely Places

Relationships: A Critical Source of Courage

But where shall I find courage?" asked Frodo. "That is what I chiefly need."
"Courage is found in unlikely places," said Gildor.

The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien, J.R. (1954)

Courage is a strength often associated with exceptional individuals - people who stand up for their ideals in the face of great opposition.  Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Dorothy Day, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Gandhi are examples of leaders whose courage have shaped the course of history. 

Courage is a constellation of character strengths, including bravery, persistence, integrity, and vitality (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).  It involves “the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, either external or internal” (Peterson & Seligman, 2004, p. 199).  Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather about a person’s capacity to persist in the face of fear.  It is a virtue that is celebrated and yet romanticized as a rare individual trait. 

Courage is not a rare quality, exclusive to exceptional individuals.  It is available when needed and can be found in unlikely places.  It can be found in a Chilean copper mine, among 33 miners, trapped deep underground for two months – a group who experienced courage in solidarity and a shared will to survive.  It is found in the workplace, when an employee speaks up on behalf of a co-worker who is discriminated based on the color of his skin.  It can be found in families with members faced with terminal illness, who find courage to be strong for each other.  As Peterson (2012) astutely observes in life and work, “other people matter.”  So it is with courage. 

Relationships are an important source of courage.  In the workplace, this can be in the form of supportive peer relationships, mentoring, or informal developmental relationships with co-workers.  For example, high quality mentoring relationships have been found to buffer the negative effects of external threats and stress on employees (Ragins, Ehrhardt, Lyness, Murphy, & Capman, 2016).  Informal developmental relationships have been found to predict courage-related outcomes such as confidence (Higgins, 2001) and optimism (Higgins, Dobrow, & Roloff, 2010).  Together, these findings suggest that relationships are an important psychological resource, critical to the exercise of courage.

How might relationships enable courageous actions in the workplace?  It doesn’t require a costly intervention or training program.  Courageous actions can be enabled through a culture of high quality and supportive work relationships.  

More specifically, workplace relationships enable courageous actions when they provide people with a secure base and a safe haven.  These two relational characteristics were first identified in attachment theory (Bowlby, 1979).  They are characteristics that can be developed in any work relationship:

  1. A secure base relationship is one where support is provided when a person needs help, in a way that encourages growth and does not interfere with the person’s independence (Feeney & Thrush, 2010).  Work relationships with a secure base support can facilitate personal exploration through availability, encouragement of growth, and noninterference.

  2. A safe haven relationship is one that serves as a harbor of support during times of distress, providing the psychological safety necessary for courageous action.  As John Bowlby observed, people are “able to deploy their talents to best advantage when they are confident that, standing behind them, there are one or more trusted persons who will come to their aid should difficulties arise” (Bowlby, 1979, p. 103). 

When confronted with a daunting challenge or life’s adversity, perhaps courage is not found by soldiering alone, but trusting in good company and finding it in unlikely places.



Bowlby, J. (1979). The making and breaking of affectional bonds. London: Tavistock.

Feeney, B. C., & Thrush, R. L. (2010). Relationship influences on exploration in adulthood: the characteristics and function of a secure base. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(1), 57.

Higgins, M. C. (2001). Changing careers: The effects of social context. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 22(6), 595-618.

Higgins, M., Dobrow, S. R., & Roloff, K. S. (2010). Optimism and the boundaryless career: The role of developmental relationships. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 31(5), 749-769.

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford University Press.

Peterson, C. (2012). Pursuing the good life: 100 reflections on positive psychology. Oxford University Press.

Ragins, B. R., Ehrhardt, K., Lyness, K. S., Murphy, D. D., & Capman, J. F. (2016). Anchoring relationships at work: High quality mentors and other supportive work relationships as buffers to ambient racial discrimination.  Personnel Psychology



Tolkien, J. R. (1954). The fellowship of the ring. United Kingdom: George Allen & Unwin.

Image by Swissmiss studios