Humans have always enjoyed stories about people who overcome overwhelming obstacles, achieve massive innovations despite naysayers, and stand up for rights in the face of oppression. We often call these people heroes and rightly laud their courage.
But courage isn’t only the purview of a select few humans who have some special gift that allows them to push back against established norms or push forward into the future. Anyone can exhibit courage, and in fact, exhibiting courage at work is a necessary skill for leaders to develop.
WHAT IS COURAGE?
Before discussing how to build and display courage in a work setting, it’s essential to define the term. At its most basic, courage is having the guts to say and do what is needed, even if it causes discomfort. That discomfort could be mild, as in the anxiety or fear that precedes a difficult conversation, or it could be severe, like when a public safety officer gets injured on the job. Ambrose Redman said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.”
Of course, most leaders won’t be faced with rescuing people from a burning building, and exhibiting courage in most work settings may not make the evening news. But throughout business, the courage of managers to make tough decisions, have difficult conversations and pursue risky initiatives will make the difference between a business that closes and one that thrives. As Peter Drucker said, “Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.”
To develop your courage as a leader, start by considering these three levels of behavior.
Level 1: Solicit Ideas
The most basic level of courage is to ask other people for ideas and candid input about the business. When faced with decisions, challenges, or difficult situations, ask others for ideas about approaching and resolving the issues. Here are some questions to help you get started:
- What would you decide if you were in my shoes?
- What might be limiting our thinking?
- What data might make us change course?
- What would our customers say about this idea?
Level 2: Solicit Debate and Dissent
Once you have ideas, ask for debate and dissent. If team members are reluctant to push back, assure them their positions are safe. Wherever possible, cultivate a climate of psychological safety to encourage robust conversation around potential decisions. Remember, the idea is to find the best solution to a problem or challenge—even if that solution is risky or does not come from you.
The following questions can help invite debate:
- Is there a different way we could achieve this objective?
- I’d like to hear your concerns with this proposal.
- What’s risky, might not work, or could fail?
- What will we learn if this doesn’t work?
Level 3: Solicit Feedback
Asking for feedback carries some level of inherent risk because whenever we ask others to give us an honest perspective, it’s possible we might get information we don’t like. Exhibiting courage means taking in that information and using it to improve performance going forward. Ask your team members two key questions about your performance to get started:
- What can I do more of to help you succeed?
- What can I do less of to help you succeed?
Of course, feedback is a two-way street, and as a leader, you will often need to address difficult behaviors or situations. To be courageous when you must offer correction to a colleague or team member, follow the two-step feedback model.
Step one of this model focuses on the behavior of another person—what was actually observed. When addressing behavior, stay focused at first on the facts:
- When you were late…
- What you said about the team…
- How you approached that meeting…
Step two of the model focuses on the result of the behavior—what was the impact? In this step, it’s all right to provide information about emotional responses as well as the factual impact of the behavior:
- I felt let down…
- The customer lost confidence…
- The project was delayed…
- The team was disappointed…
Evaluating Managerial Courage
To evaluate managerial courage in yourself or others, review the following markers and score each on a scale of 1 (poor) to 7 (excellent) (adapted from Chicago State University Human Resources documents):
- Provides current, direct, and complete reinforcing and corrective feedback to others.
- Can be direct, but tactful.
- Lets people know where they stand.
- Faces up to people problems with any person or in any situation quickly and directly.
- Is comfortable taking negative action when necessary.
- Tactfully dispenses current, direct, complete, and "actionable" feedback.
- Is open and direct with others, but does not seek to intimidate them.
- Deals head-on with people problems and prickly situations.
- Swiftly administers negative action if a situation merits it.
We can all think of favorite stories of courage or people who naturally exhibit courage. It’s normal to compare ourselves to courageous individuals and think, “That could never be me—I’m just not brave enough.” But quiet, determined courage is just as vital to the world as stunning acts of heroism. By practicing these behaviors, you will develop a stronger ability to make difficult decisions and lead with courage.
- When have you made a courageous decision?
- What made it courageous?
- What was the result?
- What is something that is facing you that requires courage?
- How will you act on that courage?