How to Lead with Courage

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Countless films and books in modern culture have dramatized the critical role of courage in leadership positions. Courageous leaders are lauded for their ability to overcome risks, face their own fears, and achieve their goals against all odds.

But you don’t need to be the protagonist in a blockbuster movie to be courageous. When you act with everyday courage and build a workplace culture that embraces courage in others, you not only advance your social-impact cause, but position yourself for greater leadership roles in the future. Who needs a superhero when you’ve got these tools at the ready?    

What is courage?

The concept of courage is generally understood as “grace under pressure” or “doing the right thing even when it’s scary.” These definitions focus on the ability of courage to overcome fears.

But it’s enlightening to take a look at a recent, more precise definition coined by University of Virginia courage researchers Jim Detert and Evan Bruno. They define workplace courage as “an act done for a worthy cause despite significant risks perceivable in the moment by the actor.” Note that this definition does not require the presence of fear.

Discerning readers of this definition will also notice that one person’s definition of courage might be another’s definition of a normal day. Indeed, a 2016 study showed that those who are older (and therefore have more life experience) are perceived to be the most courageous—likely because just like humility (another trait highly predictive of leadership success), courage is a trait you can practice and therefore improve over time. So something that seems scary today may feel less anxiety-inducing in 10 years—just because you’ve had more practice.

Opportunities for courage

It’s not uncommon to see opportunities for courage at work. It takes courage to call out your own mistakes when your project is at risk of not meeting a deadline. It also takes courage to stand up to a boss who has done something unethical.

Both include perceived risk, require you to make a conscious decision in the face of that risk, and are for a worthy cause. In the first scenario, you want to ensure to ensure your project—and therefore, the perception of your organization—is of high quality. In the second, to you want to ensure your organization is acting lawfully. More examples abound in Detert and Bruno’s Workplace Courage Acts Index, which you can complete online for personalized results. 

Courage amplifies social impact 

It’s not just CEOs who need courage; every organization should foster courageous acts from employees at all levels. Why? Here are three great reasons:

  • If you want your team to act with a worthy cause in mind, then you need to reward those who act thusly. One University of Colorado-Boulder researcher astutely sums this up: “Managers [should think] of courageous workplace behaviors as a type of organizational immune response that identifies and corrects power abuses, errors, ambiguity and needs before they metastasize and threaten the system as a whole.” And there’s no better place to do this than in the social-impact space.
  • Organizations that embrace courage build stronger, more effective leaders. According to Detert and Bruno, a courageous leader can serve as a role model for others to be courageous, thereby increasing the likelihood that all are working diligently toward a worthy cause. 
  • Courageous acts can create positive social change and increase employee behaviors associated with citizenship. 

Practice, practice, practice

If courage is a trait you can develop, then what are the steps to practice it? The next time you’re reluctant to act when you think you should, try some of these exercises:

  • Define it. Compare your situation to the definition of workplace courage, and examine how it’s the same or different. Pause and name the emotions you are feeling as you consider taking action.
  • Write about it. Recall your previous acts of courage with a writing exercise to support a more confident mindset.  
  • Tap into your values. Explore the noble or worthy cause you’re hoping to advance with a courageous act, and how it aligns with your personal values
  • Map out your options. Avoid falling prey to overthinking and use a decision-making framework to deconstruct and better understand the situation at hand. 

Let’s assume these exercises give you sufficient confidence and you take the courageous action. If your action ruffled some of your colleagues’ feathers, heed this sage advice from Dr. Jim Detert: follow up with your colleagues to re-establish the trust that might have been compromised. Yet another opportunity to practice courageous actions.

Courage for the greater good

Each time you act with courage, not only do you position your organization for greater success and impact, but you build others’ perception of you as a more capable leader, ready for greater management challenges and advanced leadership roles. Perhaps even more heartening, you will find greater confidence in your abilities, more peace of mind, and better alignment between your values and your actions.

In the words of Anais Nin, “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” So expand your life’s possibilities by practicing everyday courage.

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Have you or a co-worker ever demonstrated particularly courageous behavior at work? Tell us about it on Twitter. 

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