When I was assistant professor, I was in full possession of the three qualities that characterize young scholars – educational loans, modest pay, and summers off. As the second quality was barely sufficient to meet the demands of the first, I used the third to supplement my income. In practice, this meant that I was leading organizational development activities, such as team-building exercises and action planning workshops. After a time, these sessions became somewhat routine, and I began to notice commonalities in people’s comments. Among each group’s developmental needs was something to the effect of “people around here need to take more risks.” Usually, it was one of the first items on every list, typically articulated right after “we need better communication” but just before “we need to show each other more respect.”

I am not certain how many times I heard those words (“people around here need to take more risks,” “people around here need to take more risks,” “people around here” … you get the point) before something dawned on me. Those plucky individuals were all advocating the same thing in the same way. Far from being courageous, this is a sign that people are repeating something that is socially desirable but without thinking about what it means.  Risk-taking behavior, when considered in isolation, cannot be virtuous behavior. It cannot even be good business. The problem is a straightforward matter of definitions. When we speak of “bravery,” we are not talking about only one thing, for there are at least two. I will loosely call them audacity and courage, and they are not exactly the same. Unless the listener knows precisely which is intended, then the advice is worse than pointless, for it may lead to error.

To illustrate these two qualities, we should consider the distinction made by the ancient Greeks between audacity/boldness (thrasytes), on the one hand, and courage (andreia), on the other. These two types of bravery were illustrated in one of my favorite historical novels, Tides of War, by Steven Pressfield.  Tides of War recounts the life of Polemidas, a fictional Athenian solider, who was a friend to the very real Alcibiades during the Peloponnesian War. (Spoiler alert: Athens loses the war.)

Late in the novel, the Spartan general, Lysander, is preparing his forces for the final assault on Athens. His men wonder why he had delayed, rather than devastating the crippled Athenians forthwith. In response to these reproaches, Lysander defends himself in a speech to his men. In the course of this oratory, he defines thrasytes and andreia, doing so in a way that leaves no doubt as to which of these attributes will win the Peloponnesian War. I will quote directly, but ask the reader to forgive the sexist language. These fictional events took place about 2500 years ago.

“The bold man [thrasytes] is prideful, brazen, ambitious. The brave man [andreia] is calm, God-fearing, steady. The bold man seeks to divide; he wants his own and will shoulder his brother aside to loot it. The brave man unites. He succors his fellow, knowing that what belongs to the commonwealth belongs to him as well. The bold man covets; he sues his neighbor in the law court, he intrigues, he dissembles. The brave man is content with his lot; he respects that portion the gods have granted and husbands it, comporting himself with humility as heaven’s steward …”

“[Courage] is the issue of selflessness, brotherhood, and love of freedom. Boldness, on the other hand, is spawned of defiance and disrespect; it is the bastard brat of irreverence and outlawry. Boldness honors two things only: novelty and success. It feeds on them and without them dies.”

This is why all this talk of “risk-taking” confused me. I was not certain, and I don’t believe that the speakers were either, of whether they were talking about thrasytes or andreia. Indeed, I suspect that many people do not fully appreciate the difference between, to use my English translations, audacity and courage.

Let me start by articulating what this distinction is not. The issue here is not a matter of degree. That is, I do not see audacity as courage that has been taken too far. To be sure, everyone would acknowledge that businesspeople (and others) sometimes take ill-advised risks, but this is not what distinguishes thrasytes from andreia. Rather, I would argue that andreia, courage, possesses something that thrasytes, audacity, lacks. This secret ingredient is why courage is a virtue and audacity/boldness is not. This ingredient also explains why it is generally a good idea to recommend risk-taking that is courageous, but not generally a good idea to recommend risk-taking that is audacious.

Let us return to Tides of War. For Steven Pressfield, thrasytes (what we have translated as audacity or boldness) asserts the self. It tends to elevate the individual with personal achievements and/or glory. It can be competitive, as the individual tries to overcome obstacles. As such, the bold person may be discourteous, even shunting others aside while seeking private gain. For this reason, audacity threatens to become divisive. It is further significant that thrasytes involves no higher principle, unless one counts the pursuit of personal advantage.  Andreia (what we have translated as courage) is a different phenomenon. It subordinates the self to a worthy mission or cause, often by working with others. Andreia is collective. It respects the community and its needs. This is why courage is group-oriented, uniting people together, and also principled, as one is subordinated to a higher purpose.  While both thrasytes and andreia are characterized by a willingness to take risks, the latter also includes some additional elements – a readiness to place oneself at the service of an important cause, a sincere interest in the well-being of others, a willingness to forgo personal gain, and some higher principle.

We can understand this more fully if we consider Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle’s basic argument was that for any virtue to be fully expressed, a person needs to possess the others. In the present case, risk-taking becomes a virtue when it is supplemented by additional worthwhile qualities, such as loyalty, generosity (selflessness), justice, and love. When these are lacking, and when risk-taking is simply an individual pursuing personal success, then – by definition – it is not courage but audacity. And, lacking the reinforcing virtues, audacity cannot itself be a virtue. In other words, virtue (the singular) is a kind of unity. One virtue depends in large measure on the others, and when the others are absent then the putative virtue is transformed into something else.

After many years, I think I understand what went wrong at those organizational development sessions. To say, “people around here need to take more risks” fails to appreciate the unity of virtue. Without this key idea, we begin to act as if a courageous person and an audacious person are the same thing. In other words, we fail to distinguish between thrasytes, which asserts the self, and andreia, which subordinates the self to a worthwhile cause.  We treat both types of risk-taking as if they were equally worthy of merit, thereby misapplying our admiration and our censure.  For that reason, people sometimes admire certain self-serving actions, which are simply bold and ultimately self-serving, while disregarding other actions, which are courageous and protect communities. We have lost the key to telling the two apart.

I will close with a suggestion. They next time you are participating in an organizational development session, you might wish to recommend the following — “People around here need to be more courageous.” But if you are uncomfortable with that, here is something else for you to consider – “People around here need to be less audacious.”