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How to Lead With Courage

In today’s work world — particularly during times of stress and transition — a vital leadership attribute for talent managers is courage. Here are practical ways to build your own courage as well as to nurture this attribute in your talent.

August 12, 2011
Related Topics: Leadership Development, Technology, Succession Planning

In today’s work world, courage is a vital leadership attribute for talent managers. Today’s workplace is rife with fear. During the last few years, the world has suffered through an unusual amount of fear-inspiring situations, including the economic meltdown, numerous wars, the constant threat of terrorism, the overthrowing of governments and multiple natural disasters.

Fear has a debilitating impact on performance. Recent research shows that fearful workers are twice as likely to be depressed and 33 percent more likely to suffer from sleep disorders than their confident colleagues. The bottom line is, an organization will perform better with people who are full of courage instead of people who are full of fear.

Courageous leadership is most needed during times of stress and transition. For talent managers to positively influence the behavior of employees, they need to both display and inspire courage. Here are tips to help them build their own courage and to inspire more courageous behaviors among those they lead or influence.

Building Your Own Courage
1. Pinpoint your courageous destination. Before setting out on a journey to be a more courageous leader, you must figure out the destination, including what you hope to achieve by becoming a role model of courage. Do you want to assert your idea more confidently, and thus inspire others to do so? Do you want to take on more responsibly and influence others to take on more too? Figure out the ways in which you need to be more courageous, and how your newfound courage might influence others.

2. Know your courage history. Reflect back on the moments in your career when you demonstrated the most courage. What drove you to act with courage? What did you experience in the days or moments leading up to acting with courage? What did you do to prepare for acting courageously? Finally, what was the outcome? After assessing your courage history, jot down some lessons from your past that you can apply when you need to act with courage in the future.

3. Eat your spinach. When the cartoon character Popeye needed to muster his courage, he would scarf down some spinach. What is your “spinach”? What are the sources of courage you can, or perhaps already do, tap into when you need to strengthen your courage muscles? Does a brisk run before work make you feel stronger? Do you have a trusted mentor who you always walk away from feeling better about yourself? To build your courage, continuously tap into your courage sources.

Building Courage in Others
1. Set clear expectations. Just as sound performance management requires level-setting upfront performance expectations, it is important to clarify with workers that behaving with courage is part of what constitutes being a good corporate citizen. Be explicit in defining what courageous behavior looks like. Things like stepping up to career challenges, coming forward with novel ideas and approaches and taking calculated risks should all qualify. Individually, provide people with stretch goals that prevent them from getting overly comfortable.

2. Give people permission to disagree. Make it clear to each of the people you lead that you do not want to be surrounded by yes-people. Explain that it is dangerous to you and the team when people agree with everything you say. Tell them that to make good and informed decisions, you need people to offer perspectives that run counter to your own. Then provide them with a few tips on how to disagree with you in a way that won't put up your defenses. Then, when people start respectfully disagreeing with you, avoid the temptation to pull rank or punish them.

3. Reward behavior, not outcomes. Courage is found in the attempt, not the outcome. When people exhibit courage but make mistakes, or even fail, resist the temptation to punish them. As long as they failed for the right reasons and by following sound logic, compliment them for acting with courage. Just make sure they draw as many lessons learned from the episode as possible. Remember, if people aren’t extending themselves and making mistakes, they aren’t growing and developing for the good of the organization.

Human and organizational growth and development don’t happen in a zone of comfort, they happen in a zone of discomfort. Part of a talent manager’s job is to help people do uncomfortable things to help them move forward in their careers and the organization.

Bill Treasurer is the author of Courage Goes to Work, and is the chief encouragement officer of Giant Leap Consulting, a courage-building company whose clients include NASA, the National Science Foundation, Accenture, SPANX, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He can be reached at

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