Can courage like Antoinette Tuff’s be taught?


(AP Photo/David Goldman)

Yes, we should listen to Antoinette Tuff, the Georgia elementary school clerk who is credited with talking a gunman into laying down his arms. And yes, we should use her example to teach our children's leaders--any of our leaders, really, and all of our children--the value of compassion and the power of empathy.

And of course, we should all try to learn from this woman who wasn't supposed to be at work that day, this woman who suddenly found herself manning the school's front office, facing a mentally unstable young man with an AK-47-style rifle who said he was going to die that day. This woman President Obama called Thursday to thank for her courage.

But one question I keep asking myself since hearing about Antoinette Tuff is this one: Is that kind of resolve--that kind of unflappable calm and courage in the line of fire--actually something we can teach others?

If we are lucky, our parents, our spiritual leaders, our teachers, our loved ones show us how to be empathetic and compassionate. Tuff repeatedly spoke during interviews of her faith, of her pastor's voice in her ear, of the practice he taught her of "anchoring." Our life experiences--in Tuff's case, a disabled child, a divorce, a contemplated suicide--help to give us courage. Each moment that takes something from us tends to give us something, too.

But most of us never have, and never will, confront the kind of harrowing episode Tuff encountered. Would we hide under our desk? Would we say something to set the young man off, rather than calm him down? Would we have thought to tell him we remember seeing his band (when we didn't) or tell him we loved him, even when he held a gun in his hand?

One hopes that the right mix of role models and life experiences, prior tests and personal faith combine to give us the mettle to act as Tuff did. But that kind of response may also be something far more inherent and innate. Most of us will never know. We don't get to practice the sort of high-stakes moments where Tuff showed her remarkable grace--truly the best word to describe the confidence and compassion, calm and courage that she showed. The best we can do is try to prepare for it.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

How compassion stopped a gunman

Even good leadership couldn't save the gun control vote

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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Jena McGregor · August 22, 2013