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Becoming a Courageous Leader in the Workplace

In the world of collaboration, courage is one of the 7 facets identified by the Advance Consultancy as being necessary to make collaborations work. On a low to high continuum, a person with a high level of courage is defined as someone who is willing to make decisions take responsibility for decisions, and who deals confidently with conflict situations – they perceived as a courageous leader by others. At the opposite end of the spectrum is someone who frequently prefers to let others take the lead in making decisions and who makes it a practice to avoid controversy and conflict.

Becoming a Courageous Leader in the Workplace

Courage in the Workplace

So, there can be little doubt that courage is a key facet of collaboration between individuals, teams, and organisations. But, just think for a moment about occasions when people are equally courageous at work. For example:

  • Presenting an idea to senior executives or clients
  • Transferring to another division of the company
  • Informing a customer about a mistake that your company has made
  • Having a difficult conversation with a member of staff
  • Telling your manager that you don’t agree with them about an issue

Courage as a Leadership Trait

It is also a major contributing factor in being an effective leader. In that vein, it was the subject of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) Quarterly Special Report in September 2017. In that report James O’Toole, a management theorist, listed seven traits of great leaders. He said: 

“Leaders show courage, authenticity, integrity, vision, passion, conviction, and persistence. They also listen to others, encourage   dissenting opinion among their closest advisers, grant ample authority to subordinates and lead by example rather than by power, manipulation, or coercion.”

Winston Churchill is alleged to have once commented that:


‘Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak, but courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.’

What does a Courageous Leader Look Like?

In a similar vein Brené Brown, a well-respected leadership thinker, asked hundreds of leaders whose skills would be most important for leaders of the future. The one answer that emerged from the data was courage. So, you might be wondering, what do courageous and brave leaders look like? Brené Brown argues that they are prepared to do the following:

Brené brown’s vision of a leader 

  • Have difficult conversations:  Courageous leaders have challenging, sometimes emotional conversations; even when they don’t want to.
  • Embrace fears and feelings: Courageous leaders understand they need to spend time attending to the fears and feelings of their employees or spend a significant amount of time dealing with the impact of these feelings and fears. These leaders understand that they need to embrace what is driving the fears of their employees.
  • Show people how to re-set: Courageous leaders encourage people to make mistakes, reset, and bounce back. In fact, these leaders would rather hire someone who is not perfect but has the ability to bounce back and learn from mistakes.
  • Focus on the root cause: Courageous leaders focus on problem-solving and getting to the root cause of issues. Although it’s easy to find a quick fix, a courageous leader stays in the problem to determine the cause. Once the cause is found, they go into problem-solving mode.
  • Have the conversations around diversity and inclusion: Courageous leaders are never quiet about discussing the hard topics around diversity and inclusion. To not want to have these difficult conversations is the definition of privilege. Brave leaders choose courage over comfort. It is not the job of the people targeted by racism to invite people to the conversation. It is the role of the leader to start the conversation.
  • Do not shame or blame. Courageous leaders do not shame and blame others. They understand that when you humiliate someone, that person will quickly become disengaged. Shaming and blaming come from a place of control, not a place of vulnerability.

The Five Foundational Beliefs of Courage Building

Back in 2011, Bill Treasurer hosted a webinar in which he proposed five foundational beliefs for courage-building:

  • Courage is a skill that can be learned
  • Everyone can be or has been courageous
  • People with courage perform better
  • People increase their levels of courage in many and different ways
  • The whole organisation benefits when people are more courageous 

He introduced the idea of a continuum, shown below, between safety and opportunity. Treasurer argued that whenever there is fear in a system (e.g. a relationship, team, or organisation) people will retreat to their respective comfort zones. Whereas, in order to grow, we need to be in the discomfort zone; but we obviously need the courage to go there!

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