How to Lead With Courage

*by John Eades

Leaders must develop many attributes or skills if they want to have a meaningful impact in the workplace. Having a positive attitude will change your life, empathy improves your ability to connect with team members, while a focus on goal setting and accountability ensures that your team members meet their professional potential.  

But among all these essential elements of leadership, the value of courage is consistently overlooked. Part of this is because when we first think of courage, we tend to think of heroic acts like landing a plane on the Hudson or running into a burning building to save someone. Right behind a heroic act, courage is often thought of as an attribute that only a few extraordinary leaders possess. One’s that walk around with a big S on the chest like the comic Superman.

While these are widely popular views of courage, it is a far cry from how it’s used by great leaders on a daily basis and the word’s actual meaning. I defined it in my book Building the Best as the “ability to do something that frightens you.”

C.S. Lewis famously said, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.” Lewis got it right because each and every virtue a leader needs to possess will meet its testing point at some time. If that wasn’t enough the great William Wallace said it well in Braveheart; “people don’t follow titles; they follow courage.”

People don’t follow titles; they follow courage.  

In other words, a courageous leader is precisely the kind of leader required in today’s hyper-changing marketplace. 

What Happens When You’re Courageous

When you haven’t made many courageous decisions in your life or career, it’s tempting to believe you are just not a fearless leader. Reject this negative thinking with all your might. Courage can be exercised at any time with situations big and small by anyone willing to embrace it. 

While neuroscience research suggests that some people innately possess a thrill-seeking or “Type T” personality, courage is still required to act whether you are wired with higher risk tolerance levels or not.  

In working with leaders from all different backgrounds and industries, two significant outcomes happen when leaders are courageous. 

  1. Clarity in the Future
  2. Increased Opportunities

Clarity in the Future

One of the things many professionals are struggling with right now is clarity in their journey. There is so much uncertainty and doubt surrounding us right now; it has many questioning their purpose and pathway. What is ironic is when you are frightened and decide to do something anyway, it creates clarity, not confusion. It shows us that we are on the right or wrong path whereas if we did not act, we would remain stuck in the same place filled with uncertainty. 

Leaders Who Act Courageously Create Clarity, Not Confusion

While we aspire to have clarity as quickly as possible, it is also true that the clarity we want may not find us at our own timeline, but at at later time. However, it should provide confidence to know that when you are choosing courage, you are on the path towards clarity. 

Increase in Opportunities

Something funny happens when you act courageously as a leader, opportunity finds you. With an increase in opportunities comes the ability to make a significant impact on others and drive additional revenue. 

Entrepreneur John Wiesehan told me, “Opportunity dances with those already on the dance floor. When you act courageously, these new opportunities have a funny way of finding you. Which then allows you to make calculated decisions about which opportunities to pursue.” 

Courageous leaders can examine new opportunities quickly, as Wiesehan suggests, to reject recklessness. If they feel they lack information or the bandwidth to pursue something, it allows them to choose the right time to act courageously in the future.

How to Be More Courageous

Since courage is essential in leadership and provides significant upside, we must work hard to exercise it. Here are a few of the strategies I have seen be effective:

  1. Write Down the Worst Possible Outcome. Our brains are fascinating because we have an almond-shaped mass in them called an Amygdala. This part of our brain has become best known for its role in fear processing. This means that this area in our brain controls fear and our responses to it. You are naturally wired to run from or avoid things that can be harmful.  Getting in the habit of writing down the worst possible outcome from acting on something that frightens you often provides insight that the worst scenario isn’t actually all that bad.  
  2. Quantify the Best Possible Outcome. Since our brains constantly evaluate either the pain or gain in every situation, highlighting the benefits of courageous leadership is a powerful method to encourage action. Regardless if the end outcome meets or even exceeds our expectations, the practice of allowing your brain to visualize the possible benefits in a situation is a decisive step in the process of being more courageous. 
  3. Lean Into the Emotions. Acting as if emotions such as doubt or fear do not exist is a false path to courage. Being open and honest about your emotions is not a weakness; it is a strength. In a recent episode of Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead Podcast, Dr. Susan David was speaking about the dangers of Toxic Positivity and said, “Emotions are data, not directives. We get to choose who we want to be; our emotions don’t.” The wisdom in Dr. David’s words can’t be overstated. Allow yourself to experience the emotions that would cause you not to act courageously and then decide to move forward despite them when it makes sense. 

“Emotions are data, not directives. We get to choose who we want to be; our emotions don’t.” Dr. Susan David

Closing

The better you get at acting as a courageous leader, the easier it will be to set your fear aside and lead people, teams, and organizations to a better place than they are today. To quote the great Nelson Mandela, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” 

*John Eades is the CEO of LearnLoft, a leadership development company helping executives and managers to lead their best.

*This article first appeared on the LearnLoft.com website.

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