The one with Scooby Doo and other cowards

Last week I wrote a blog about Courage, broadly and in terms of organisations. In response to that blog there were two comments. The first made the point that in courage required fear (this made by a Consultant friend of mine) and the second (from Gareth Jones) refuted that. That evening, I was having a conversation with someone who shall remain nameless, and this person asked an interesting question (which kind of backed up the point that courage needed fear) and the question was “if you aren’t courageous in response to fear does that make you a coward?”. The conversation went on to discuss conscientious objectors and those who refused to “go over the top” in the trenches of the Somme.

The definition of coward varies depending on the dictionary but this seems fairly representative:


  • a person who is contemptibly lacking in the courage to do or endure dangerous or unpleasant things.


  • 1 literary excessively afraid of danger or pain.
  • 2 Heraldry(of an animal) depicted with the tail between the hind legs.

The curiosity seed about cowardice having been planted in my mind I did what I always (now) do in response to an absence of knowledge I googled it and the cowards who seem to be commonly quoted (aside from Noel, a cheap joke!) are these:

Two have something in common, Jack McCall and Robert Ford who shot, respectively, Wild Bill Hickok and Jesse James in the back whilst wrapped up in other outlaw type activities. The fact that they killed outlaws wasn’t what was objected to, it was the fact they shot them in the back that distinguished them.

J. Bruce Ismay, who as Chairman of White Star Lines was considered a coward as he made it off the R.M.S. Titanic whilst women and children were still on board.

The remainder of the names that come up seem to involve either people making seemingly poor decisions (Neville Chamberlain) or people who are making what appear political decisions or following poor intelligence (George W. Bush comes up a LOT!). So are a poor decision makers cowards? Did they not feel fear or did they choose to not be courageous?

Although Eddie Izzard would seem a strange source to cite here, he makes an interesting point in his show “Dressed to Kill”. In the process of making a point about religion he says that Scooby Doo and Shaggy are two of the most major characters in American literature (he also makes the point that Scrappy Doo should have been shot). He remarks that aside from Falstaff (who appears in several of Shakespeare’s Henrys) they are the only cowards that we like. He goes on to say that they only believe in “cowardice and sandwiches”. So is the reason the lists for heroes are copious and the lists for cowards are tiny to do with the fact that we don’t like cowards?

Watch from 10’ 45”  to hear it straight from the horses mouth… (and be warned he MAY use some swear words)

But with the information from both google and from Eddie Izzard, I am still no clearer on the difference between cowardice and poor decision making.

In “The Return of the Jedi” Alec Guiness (as Obi-Wan Kenobi) says “you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view” to Luke in justifying his sin of ommision around the whole ‘Darth Vader’s your Dad’ thing. So are poor decision makers only cowards from a certain point of view?

I am no clearer on this. In fact I am moderately more confused. At least having watched a bit of Eddie Izzard I have laughed.

So no neat ending. No packaging. Just a sharing of thoughts since last week with the hope that some opinion will make things clearer.

The floor is yours…..



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8 responses to “The one with Scooby Doo and other cowards

  1. garethmjones

    So i did what you did and googled ‘courage’ and this is what i got:

    the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear

    Interesting huh?! I rest my case 😉 Anyhow, the point i was making before was that is it only fear that drives courageous behaviour? Im not so sure, thats all.

    Are you a coward if you dont show courage? I doubt its as clean as that. If it was, then in a corporate context we are all cowards, or the majority of us are. Sukh Pabial touches on this in his recent excellent post Whilst he is talking about conformity in the context of a care home and some pretty awful goings on, the same dynamic exists within many organisations to a much lesser extent. But its happening. We are collectively turning the other cheek on a daily basis – to poor ethics, bad behaviour, fraud, bullying etc.

    So, no more answers for you, but a very interesting question indeed!

  2. I have to confess to being something of a Falstaff fan – and I would dispute that he is a coward. he simply takes rational decisions not to place himself in pointless danger. What he lacks is not courage, but a sense of honour. That doesn’t make him admirable, but I think cowardice is something different. Maybe letting others be courageous in your place, taking the benefit of their bravery but not sharing in the risk?

  3. I usually steer well clear of these philosohical discussions, but my two pennies are as follows –

    Courage is surely greater than the strength and manner of your reaction to fear; equally cowardice is much less than just a lack of courageous reaction. Does courage exist without deep-rooted beliefs, values and convictions – if I have an instictive, unthinking reaction to something am I truly courageous? I wonder whether true courage comes in the weighing up of the potential outcomes of a decision, understanding that you are putting the needs of others first, or putting yourself in real danger…and doing it anyway, because you believe it to be right.

    Equally cowardice is surely more than the lack of reaction to a situation. It is a conscious decision, based on weighing up the options to order your values differently and not do the right or brave thing, to shoot someone who has his back turned or not help others in need, who would otherwise drown. Can a child be a coward? Not really, I would argue – their thinking process and weighing up of options is not yet matured enough.

    More questions than answers undoubtedly, good though-provoking post 😉

  4. Like beauty, courage surely exists in the eye of the beholder. If Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy had avoided WW2 he would surely have made your ‘courageous’ list rather than cropping up as a coward. I’ve written somewhere that one of the defining characteristics of an entrepreneur seems to be a different appreciation of risk: seeing the same odds that everyone else sees but backing yourself and your instincts to succeed where others would stay at home. In this context, success makes you courageous and failure a fool. Those that watched you leave on your quest but chose not to follow look wise when you fail and cowards when you win.

  5. Don’t cowardice & courage relate to conscious acts that are judged or perceived as cowardly or courageous? Whereas poor decision making could unwittingly be poor in nature but with the best of intentions?

    Isn’t fear is a response to a threat which depending on the action/outcome could be perceived in many ways including cowardice or even courage?

    Good post but why did I get started…… now I too am moderately confused!!! Thanks though!

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  7. I’m no nearer understanding cowardice – but I think there is definitely an overlap with the sort of rational Falstaffian dishonour Darren refers to. But I think whatever dictionary Gareth was looking at is way off the mark on the meaning of courage:

    “the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear”

    What nonsense. That is not courage, but foolishness. Courage is being able to face all of those things WITH fear, and in spite of it.

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