The First Virtue

(Or the most important skill of the 21st century)

Recently I read a couple of books, both proclaiming to cover the “most important skill of the 21st century”. Interestingly, the skills they were talking about, were not the same. One set of authors was writing about curiosity, the other book was about risk competence.

The dictionary defines curiosity as “the desire to learn or know more about something or someone” – in other words to explore something that is unknown – whereas risk competence can be described as having sufficient knowledge or skill when it comes to assessing and/or managing risk. Risk in turn also resides in the sphere of the unknown, since it is merely a possibility of loss or injury, a potential hazard. In other words, both curiosity and risk competence – supposedly the most important skills of the 21st century – require us to venture out into the unknown. Now, for some people the unknown exudes a mysterious fascination and peculiar appeal, yet most of us have other associations or feelings when we think about it: uncertainty, uneasiness, emotional discomfort, fear.

Well, if these notions are linked to the most important skills of the 21st century – curiosity and risk competence – then I’d argue that there is another skill more fundamental than both of them. What do you need to explore the unknown, to defy mystery or to deal with discomfort and face your fears? I believe what you need is courage.

“Courage is the first virtue because it makes all other virtues possible.” – Aristotle

Courage, defined as the “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty” is at the root of both, curiosity and risk competence, and in fact of a whole lot of other qualities. And if your mind now automatically thinks of superheroes, conquerors, saviors, and other larger-than-life champions, who did extraordinary things that undoubtedly required bravery beyond measure, I dare you to put those thoughts aside and instead, take a look in the mirror. There is courage staring right back at you.

You are courageous. Yes, you! How do I know? Because without courage you, I, none of us couldn’t exist. Every day we are confronted with challenges, decisions or actions that require perseverance, (moral) strength or effort. And many of those everyday moments do require courage. For some of us, it requires courage to start a diet or exercise, to accept a professional challenge, to balance work and home life, to go to the dentist, to argue with your teenage offspring or to raise a child at all. For others, it requires courage to drive a car, to stand in a crowd or to even get out of bed in the morning. And most of us have to gather their courage to voice our concerns or fears, to confront someone we respect and care for, to overcome failure and disappointment, to extend trust or to even be our authentic self. The examples are endless. After all, the human species would not even have evolved to its current stage, had our ancestors given in to fear of fire, nomadism or saber-toothed tigers!

Why is this important? Because if courage is the foundation of not only the most important skills of the 21st century, but also of the many everyday actions and decisions we take, wouldn’t it be worth being developed and strengthened? Sometimes we are aware of it and sometimes we are not, yet we all need it, and we better master it. The good news is that courage is like a muscle, we can train it. And while this is useful for everyone, I think it is even more important for leaders. Those that others look up to, as role models, as visionaries, as the leaders they want to follow because they inspire them to be at their best.

A 2018 study confirms that Authentic Leadership promotes individual performance. Authentic leaders are self-aware (requiring courage), build up trust through disclosure and transparency (more courage), solicit views that challenge their own (courage again) and refer to an internalized and integrated form of self-regulation that is guided by their moral standards and values (requiring – well, you get the point). In other words, Authentic Leadership takes courage. Lots of it!

And that is precisely why I think that courage, or “the first virtue” as Aristotle called it, is the most important skill of the 21st century. It is the foundation of survival of the species, of human relationships, of business decisions and life in general. Nowadays possibly more than ever, it requires courage to wake up to the world in its current state and not to despair of it. Even more so we need leaders who earn and deserve our followership, by being authentic, inspirational and courageous. Next time you look in the mirror, acknowledge your own courage, no matter how insignificant you think it is. It shows up in the small things, every day.


Authored by Martina Mangelsdorf, Chief Strategic Dreamer at GAIA Insights

Read more about Authentic Leadership in our Teal Paper.

Source of definitions referred to in this blog: