When I was in elementary school, one of my classmates was a girl named Laura. Laura came to school with uncombed hair and old, tattered dresses. I didn’t think of her as living in poverty; I only saw her as “different.” She suffered from epileptic seizures, which freaked everyone out. Halfway through a class, without warning, Laura would fall on the floor; her body would stiffen, her arms and legs would jerk and shake like a rag doll, and we would all circle around and watch. Back then we just waited it out. After a few minutes, Laura would open her eyes, slowly stand up, and wobble alone down to the infirmary. We wouldn’t see her for the rest of the day.
Laura was a loner. You would see her off by herself in the corner of the lunchroom or the playground. She was the target of frequent tormenting, harassment, and bullying. On one occasion, a group of boys were making fun of the stains on her blouse and the way she walked. Another boy, who himself wasn’t very popular, stood in front of the bullies and told them to stop bothering her.
For his courage, the poor kid got punched in the nose, thrown on the ground and five boys pummeled him. His face bled for the rest of the afternoon, and he had a black eye for a week. That “poor kid” went on to be the high school student union president, a talented quarterback, and eventually a successful lawyer and crown prosecutor. And after the incident, I don’t remember Laura ever being bullied again.
To this day, I wish I’d had the courage to stand up to those bullies the way he did.
Moxie. Courage. Nerve. Determination. A force of character to contend with. A quality of great leadership.
Leading can be treacherous. With or without a title, exercising leadership means shouldering the pains and the aspirations of those we serve, while failing or frustrating others. Facing resistance to changes we initiate, working in systems that go against our values, or standing on unpopular principles, leading means putting yourself at risk. It means stepping into the path of potential betrayal, rejection, discomfort, and unpopularity. Leaders get attacked, dismissed, silenced, and sometimes assassinated. Who wants that?
The root of the word courage is cor—the Latin word for heart. Leading means the courage to follow our heart. It means, at times, the courage to stand alone as we stand up for something or someone we care about. It means having moxie.
Moxie teaches us to honour our true self and worry less about how we look or how we conform. Here are three methods to finding your moxie:
1.Be willing to stand alone. To lead and belong fully in this world, you must be prepared to stand unaccompanied. Having moxie means having the courage to do what’s right rather than doing what’s popular. There is no path to moxie. There is no path till you walk it.
2.Stand for something. You can’t stand alone until you know what you stand for. Whether you have a well-defined set of principles that guide your leadership or your life, an intuitive sense of purpose, or a clear vision for your life and your work, moxie comes from clarity.
3.Care. Moxie comes from caring. Caring about your people. Caring about your work. When you care, moxie surfaces in times of need. As I say in my book by the same title, Caring Is Everything.
In the poem “A Memorable Fancy,” William Blake enters into an imaginary conversation with the prophet Isaiah: “Does a firm persuasion that a thing is so, make it so?” Isaiah replies, “All poets believe that it does, and in ages of imagination this firm persuasion removed mountains.”