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How Medal of Honor Recipients Answer the Courage Question

Courage is about stepping across the gap in the face of fear, and doing what needs to be done anyway. Guest Blogger - Dr. Kevin Basik

As the Chief of Leadership Programs at the Medal of Honor Institute, there’s a question I ask every Medal of Honor recipient. Even though I know how they will answer, I still lean in to listen for the secret sauce.

It’s the Courage Question: “(In spite of the fear, pain and risk)…what helped you do what you did?”

The Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest honor for selfless bravery in combat. Granted, we may never be in a firefight or have a live grenade lobbed into our lives, threatening those we love. But perhaps their battlefield is a useful analogy for the battles we all face in our lives. And just maybe…whatever helped these heroes in their moments of Courage can help the rest of us.

The responses by these humble and admittedly “ordinary” heroes consistently fall into three categories which I call “The Courage Catalysts.” Strengthen these and you strengthen your ability to act courageously when it matters most wherever you serve.

Listen to what they said:

1. (COMPETENCE) “I was just doing what I was trained to do.” If fear is born from “I don’t know how to do this,” then the solution is to learn how to do it. Get trained, do test runs, find a mentor, look for models to follow. As we add tools to our kits, we dampen the power of fear. To tap into courage, move from the question, “Can I do this?” to “How can I do this?” and get to work. Navy SEALs famously say, “You don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training.” Many Medal recipients simply say their heroism was born out of the fact that they knew how to do what the moment required, so fear did not control them.

2. (CONFIDENCE) “I believed I could pull it off” It’s hard to take action if you lack hope. Belief…maybe in the form of faith…can be a powerful antidote to fear. Sometimes Courage emerges when we shorten the path down to the next step, day, meal, milestone or chemo treatment. Other times, we gain confidence from watching others like us succeed, or by acknowledging things we’ve done in the past that align with this new threat. There’s a reason that Courage is contagious. It infects the group with confidence to take action.

3. (COMMITMENT) “There’s nothing that would have kept me from trying” No matter how significant the fear, a commitment to a teammate, friend, identity (“It’s who I am/we are”), or a cause can fuel courageous action. Many Medal of Honor recipients will tell you it is largely a medal about love. When we (re)connect with our “why” or what values or commitments are at stake if we don’t act, this becomes a fuel that renders any fear impotent.

As Dave Anderson says in his book Becoming a Leader of Character, Courage is simply “acting despite perceived or actual risk.” It’s about stepping across the gap in the face of fear, and doing what needs to be done anyway. These heroes have lived that. Competence, confidence and commitment are three things that each of us can do when facing our own moments of fear.

I (Dave) truly appreciate Kevin taking the time to share his insights on Courage. Due to his role at the Medal of Honor Institute, he has a unique perspective on the topic. He has met and interviewed so many of these extraordinary yet “ordinary” heroes. Discussing Becoming a Leader of Character and the Six Habits of Character with Kevin inspires me. The work of the Medal of Honor Institute should inspire our nation.

Dr. Kevin Basik is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy. He served in the Air Force for over 20 years and served as the Director of Character and Leadership Development at the Air Force Academy. Kevin currently serves as the Chief of Leadership Programs for the National Medal of Honor Institute. For more on the Institute, or the National Medal of Honor Museum, please visit


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