Talking courage with a Scientist & Practitioner

(~6 minute read)

KK Headshot photoAt Wellness & Wellbeing Solutions, Dr. Kristin Koetting (KK) is dedicated to helping individuals, groups, and organizations reach their potential.  She also shares her knowledge, experience and passion through her role as Associate Professor of Organizational Leadership at Abilene Christian University(ACU) in Texas. KK lives in Kansas and works for ACU virtually.

Her extensive training and experiences as a scientist and a practitioner give her the unique advantage of being on the cutting edge of scientific advancements, and the ability to translate scientific findings into practical skills and programs.

Join us as KK shares that courage is about choice, comes with risk, is for “good” … and yet, this good may not always be realised.

What does courage mean to you?

I go back to the definition* that my colleagues Shane Lopez, Stephanie Peterson and I proposed almost two decades ago that courage is the cognitive process of defining risk, identifying and considering alternative actions, and choosing to act in spite of potential negative consequences in an effort to obtain “good” for self or others, recognizing that this perceived good may not be realized.

It is implicit that courage promotes the greater good.  There is also private courage in which someone is facing their own battles and self-focus and self-preservation is the key.  This can still do good for others.

It is also important to know that courage is multidimensional.  There is moral courage, physical courage and psychological or vital courage.

What does courage look like in your workplace?

I work in two settings: a private psychotherapy/coaching practice, and also in a university setting where I am an associate professor of organizational leadership.

In my private practice, every time a client walks through the door they exemplify what my colleagues and I describe as psychological courage.  Clients are facing and seeking help for their challenges like depression and anxiety and seeking a better life.  There is a risk, they are allowing themselves to be vulnerable and it is painful to tackle such problems and the outcome is often unknown.

In my university workplace, courage is apparent when a colleague votes against a policy that others support, in an effort to obtain the greater good. I see courage in a student who came back to school after 40 years, and despite being fearful, they want a degree so they can do good for others.  I see courage when the vice president of our university is transparent and tells us the truth, when the information isn’t what faculty members want to hear.

I have seen courage at home in my daughter, Carolina, when she stood up to someone who was bullying another child in her class.

What led to your interest in exploring courage?

My interest in courage began long ago – when my friend Dr. Shane Lopez called me and asked me the question, “What is Courage?”  I remember the conversation vividly and my response went something like this,“Courage?  As in the virtue?  It is doing something risky but you aren’t afraid.  No, wait.  I take it back.  Courage is doing something that you are afraid of.   Okay, I don’t know what courage is.”  And Shane replied, “Don’t worry, neither did Socrates, so let’s find out!”  That conversation was 18 years ago when I was pregnant with Anna, my oldest daughter.  I kept thinking that courage was something I wanted to instill in my children and I was drawn to find out more.  Now, my interest in courage is the same in many ways.  I want to understand more about the nature of courage, and how to instill it in others.  I want to know how to better train children, adults, and especially leaders to be courageous. The thought of more courageous individuals is what gives me hope for the future.  Ironically, Anna competes nationally in informative speaking and her most recent topic is on bravery/courage!

Please describe 1or 2 examples of times in which you have been courageous.  What did you do?  Who/what enabled you to be courageous?  What was the outcome?  

It’s interesting that I have asked that question of others, but I don’t think anybody has ever asked me.

A time I displayed courage was when I quit my tenure track position because I had a department chair who was cruel and unfair to me.  It was a difficult decision because, at least on paper, this was my dream job (I was hired as a tenure track position at a Research I university right out of graduate school).  I had no job to go to, I was risking my career, and my future was uncertain.  But, I had to quit for my health and well-being. And because she was horrible to other faculty members as well, I felt that I needed to be clear to her and the Dean that it was her unfairness and cruelty that led me to resign.  When I went to campus to resign in person, she was gone from the office.  I explained in an email that I needed to talk to her, and she called me.  It was late in the day and I thought I was the only one in my area of the building so I left my office door open and used my speaker phone during the conversation. I was candid and clear that her cruelty, unfairness and disrespect were the reasons I was leaving.  I recalled situations that happened and how I had previously tried to address these with her.  She claimed that this was all in my head and denied any wrong doing.  Frankly, I anticipated this would happen.  So, I reiterated my point and told her where I was leaving my keys and my official resignation letter, and then I ended the call.  What happened next was amazing. Two female graduate students who I worked closely with were apparently working in a common area just outside of my office.  They came to my office door with tears in their eyes and they told me that they couldn’t help overhearing the conversation.  I felt my role was to protect them from department politics and I apologized profusely the they overheard that conversation.  They were both in tears and said that they were glad they overheard our conversation because they were so proud of me for handling the situation the way that I did and they said they felt empowered because of it.

More recently, I was on the board of directors for a scholarship foundation.  When I proposed a fair scholarship recipient selection process, some of the board members disliked it and wanted to do things their way.  However, their way was unfair to the applicants.  I explained why it was unfair, but they weren’t willing to reconsider.  Because of this, I stepped down from the board and I risked friendships in the process.

At work, whether it is teaching or working with therapy/coaching clients, I have to be honest, which often requires courage.  Being authentic and telling the truth – for the greater good of the student or client is risky.  People don’t always want to hear the truth and I have had people react negatively and end our relationship.

From your point of view, to what extent are our world leaders leading with courage?

I haven’t seen many examples of courage among world leaders lately, and certainly not in the United States.  I see it in senators and congresswomen and men calling out our president.  I saw it when the former FBI director, James Comey, refused to give in to our president’s demands to drop charges and investigations.  As you know, he was later fired.

KKI’ve seen courage in other places though and what is amazing to me is the social change that we have seen because of a courageous act.  So often we think about courage, especially moral courage, as having an impact far in the future (think Rosa Parks), but the recent events in the film/television industry in the USA have shown an almost immediate impact of the courageous actions of what started with a few women.  These women shared their allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse against a powerful Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein.  They took an enormous risk by coming forward and telling their stories.  What happened after was equally as amazing:  Numerous other women came forward with allegations against Harvey Weinstein, and other women and men came forward with stories of sexual harassment, misconduct and abuse by others in the film industry and beyond.

It took courage for them to share their stories, but what happened within their stories was often courageous as well. There were tales of saying no to sexual advances and standing up to the bully despite threats that their career would be ruined.  Some of these individuals were fired.  There is risk with courage after all; the outcome isn’t guaranteed.

People shared stories on social media with the #MeToo hashtag and soon there was a viral epidemic of courage.  This movement is a great example of the courage contagion.

What’s unclear is the specific mechanism through which the courage contagion works.  It’s plausible that witnessing others courageous actions promotes self-efficacy to do the same. However, it is also possible that in this situation, the courageous actions of telling one’s story and the fact that these women who first told their stories were believed, it may have inspired others and created a safer space for them to come forward too. Perhaps this lessens fear or buffers the perceived risk.  Or, maybe the perceived benefit or the likelihood of a positive outcome is heightened. We researchers need to understand this better.

This example of courage is especially intriguing to me because of the swift social change that occurred.  Harvey Weinstein was fired from his production company and was ousted by organizations he was affiliated with.   Other prominent executives, actors and anchors were fired because of the allegations against them by courageous individuals.

KK would be pleased to hear from you and can be contacted at:

  3. +1 913 674 9355

In the short time that I have known KK, she has demonstrated her strengths of authenticity and courage on a number of occasions.  Her stories and reflections above are testament to her actions.  I admire KK’s courageous choice in leaving her “dream job” when many in similar circumstances have stayed.

KK’s comments about being truthful with clients when they may not want to hear the truth, has struck a chord with me.  While there may be risk associated with being truthful, it’s a worthwhile act, and so, while I may be anxious about it at times, like KK, I will always be honest.


KK’s work includes:

*O’Byrne, K.K., Lopez, S.L., & Peterson, S. (2000).  Building a theory of courage:  A precursor to change?  Paper presented at the 108thannual meeting of the American Psychological Association, Washington, D.C. (Division 17).

Kelley, C.L., Murphy, H.J., Breeden, C.R., Hardy, B.P., Lopez, S.J., Koetting (O’Byrne), K.K., Petersen, S.L., & Pury, C.L. (in press). Conceptualizing Courage.  In S.J. Lopez & M. Gallagher (Eds.). Positive Psychological Assessment (2ndEd.). Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association

Rasmussen, H.N., Koetting (O’Byrne), K. K. Vandamente, M. & Cole, B.P. (in press).  Hope and Physical Health.  In S.J. Lopez & M. Gallagher (Eds.) The OxfordHandbook of Hope.  Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.  DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199399314.013.15

Koetting (O’Byrne), K. & Pury, C.L. (chairs; 2017). Pioneering and Profiling Courage: The Legacy and Work of Dr. Shane Lopez. Symposium presented at the International Congress of Positive Psychology, Quebec, Montreal, Canada, July 13-16, 2017.

Koetting (O’Byrne), K. (2017). From the Beginning: Building a Theory of Courage with the Mentorship and Friendship of Shane Lopez. Symposium presented at the International Congress of Positive Psychology, Quebec, Montreal, Canada, July 13-16, 2017.

Koetting (O’Byrne), K. & Rasmussen, H.N. (2014; chairs).The HOW of Gratitude.  Symposium presented at the 122ndannual meeting of the American Psychological Association, Washington, D.C., August 7-10, 2014.

Koetting (O’Byrne), K.  (2014).Cultivating, Expressing, and Accepting Gratitude: Applications in Therapy for Her, Him, and Them. In K. Koetting’s (O’Byrne) and H. Rasmussen’s (chairs) symposium presented at the 122ndannual meeting of the American Psychological Association, Washington, D.C., August 7-10, 2014.

Koetting (O’Byrne), K. (2013).  Who is your Hero? Honoring our Heroes, Inspiring the World, and Preparing Future Heroes. Presentation submitted to The Third World Congress on Positive Psychology, Los Angeles, California, June 27-30, 2013.

Koetting (O’Byrne), K. & Koetting, L.D. (2013).  The Gratitude List Project. The Third World Congress on Positive Psychology, Los Angeles, California, June 27-30, 2013.

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