Courage before confidence

by | Mar 13, 2019 | Leadership

Over the past year, I’ve been setting up my stall as a speaker to share my messages with more people and grow my leadership and career coaching practice. I’ve done alot of training, facilitating and presenting in my time, but I’ve found that speaking is a whole different ball-game. Why is that, when they all involve exposing yourself in front of a room full of people?!

When you’re speaking, whilst the audience have chosen to be there because they’re interested in the title of your talk, there is no obligation for them to engage. You’re essentially there to entertain them and hope to hold their attention until the end of your talk. In my experience, this is different from the role of a participant in a leadership development programme. 

So as someone who spends alot of time helping professionals overcome fear and cultivate confidence, I admit it : I felt downright afraid ahead of the first couple of talks I did, worried whether my messages and stories would land, worried about whether I’d leave the audience at best ambivalent, at worst no longer in the room! (The positive feedback I received was an enormous relief, I can tell you.)

Thorough preparation helped my feelings of readiness (a quote from SAS soldier Adam O’Donnell helped me, “At times of heightened action, we don’t rise to the occasion, we fall to the level of preparedness”). However, that still wasn’t enough to give me confidence : the missing link was courage.

What is courage and why is it a necessary precursor to confidence?
Whereas the dictionary definition of confidence is “a feeling of self-assurance arising from an appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities”, courage is defined as “the quality shown by someone who decides to do something difficult or dangerous, even though they may be afraid”. 

Our evolutionary roots mean that, when we are faced with a situation we find challenging, whether that’s speaking in front of a room of people, challenging an authority figure or walking out of a job, our brain will perceive a threat and this will trigger our fight/flight response.

As I’ve explored in previous posts, we can reprogramme fear-driven behaviours and develop confidence over time through awareness, intention and practice (check out my white paper if you want to read more about this). However, we need to summon the strength to show up in situations that we’re afraid of to build that confidence.

Girding your loins – or putting your Big Girl’s Pants on
Have you heard of the phrase “to gird your loins”? Back in the days of the ancient Near East, both men and women wore flowing tunics. Around the tunic, they’d wear a belt or girdle. While tunics were comfortable and breezy, the hem of the tunic would often get in the way when a man was fighting or performing hard labour.

So when ancient Hebrew men had to battle the Philistines, the men would lift the hem of their tunic up and tuck it into their girdle or tie it in a knot to keep it off the ground. The effect basically created a pair of shorts that provided more freedom of movement. To tell someone to “gird up their loins” was to tell them to get ready for hard work or battle. It was the ancient way of saying “Man up!” (Thanks to The Art of Manliness site for this explanation.)

For me, the contemporary phrase equivalent to “Gird your loins” for women is “Put your Big Girl’s pants on”. (By the way, I coach both men and women and know that lack of confidence is no stranger to either gender whatever people may say.)

In my experience, embodying a feeling of courage is literally the feeling you’d imagine of pulling up big pants : raising yourself to your full height, gathering yourself in and embodying a feeling of resolve – the visceral equivalent of making a fist.

The science behind pulling up your pants
The most well-known science behind the link between our physiology and feelings of confidence is that of Amy Cuddy. She found that power-posing (now referred to as postural feedback in her latest academic paper) makes us feel more powerful as well as changing our body chemistry, in particular an increase in testosterone and a decrease in cortisol.

I’d also like to reference Dr Amanda Blake’s fantastic work on the science of somatics (check out her book Your body is your brain on Amazon) where she talks about how the brain and body is literally thrown off balance when facing change and uncertainty. She defines courage as a function of resilience and talks about how we can build courage by going beyond our perceived limits physically as well as psychologically.

So what does this mean for you as you come face to face with your nemesis?

  • Know that we need to walk through our fear to have the experiences that will help us develop feelings of trust in the situation we are facing and in ourselves. In other words, we need to do what scares us – with courage – before we will increase our confidence.
  • Gird your loins/put your Big Pants on : raise yourself up to your full height and find your balance, hold an open and expansive posture, and breathe deeply to activate your parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest rather than fight and flight one)

As Nelson Mandela said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear”.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do drop me a line at

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Alison Reid is an experienced executive coach who helps Directors lead with confidence and step-change their influence and impact. She works with them 1-1, empowering them to focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.

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