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Courageous Leadership: How Fearlessness Can Transform Your Team
Courageous leadership enables leaders to embrace change, navigate difficult conversations, and encourage innovation. Courage is not fearlessness. Unlike recklessness, it is inspirational and contagious. Courageous leaders provide examples for their teams that empower their people and unleash their creativity. Courage is one of the greatest qualities of a leader’s mind.
“You will never do anything in this world without courage. It is the greatest quality of the mind next to honor.” – Aristotle.
Leadership courage is not fearlessness. It is the ability to make bold decisions and take decisive action in the face of uncertainty, adversity, and unexpected challenges.
Courageous leadership is about standing up for what’s right, even if it’s the unpopular thing to do. Courageous leaders focus on serving others and supporting their employees through difficult situations and ambiguity.
Courage is much more than the lack of fear.
Courageous leaders are empathetic, unafraid to take risks, and, above all, show vulnerability.
Why Courage Trumps Fearlessness
Courage is a state of mind and attitude superior in nature and scope to fearlessness, although there are some similarities between the two.
Fearlessness entails the lack of an emotional response to a situation or circumstances that may scare others. Courage, on the other hand, is not the lack of fear but the ability to deal with it constructively.
“Courageous leadership is not fearless leadership. What makes you a leader is how you deal with your fears.” – Andy Hargreaves.
The absence of fear says nothing about a person’s ability to make informed decisions likely to produce positive outcomes. And it may degenerate into recklessness.
Courage requires the acknowledgment of fear coupled with the retention of the ability to take thoughtful action.
The role of courage in leadership is that of a force and efficacy multiplier. It makes good leaders better, allowing them to inspire, engage, and support their reports better, creating enhanced outcomes success and productivity-wise. In this article, I explore the impact of courage on leadership, including:
- Encouraging innovation and risk-taking
- Handling difficult situations and conversations
- Fostering healthy organizational cultures
- Powering personal growth and development
Understanding Courageous Leadership
From the perspective of a leadership coaching expert, transformative leadership requires courage. More precisely, it requires the ability to take calculated risks and make bold decisions with integrity and a strong sense of purpose.
Leadership courage defines a leader’s ability to navigate challenges successfully. It also determines how well leaders can adapt to change and:
- Inspire others
- Build trust
- Power innovation
- Manage crises
While we may confuse courage with fearlessness and recklessness, every aspect of courageous leadership differs significantly from recklessness.
- Courageous leaders make their decisions intentionally and with careful consideration. Reckless leaders fail to consider the consequences of their decisions.
- Courageous leadership takes responsibility for decisions and their consequences. Reckless leadership avoids taking responsibility for the negative consequences.
- Courageous leaders have a long-term vision to guide their decisions. Reckless leaders focus on short-term gains.
- Courageous leaders observe a set of well-defined values to guide their leadership. Reckless leaders are more than willing to disregard values and principles to achieve short-term objectives.
- Courageous leaders show maturity. They learn from past mistakes. Reckless leaders fail to take the time to analyze their failures and learn from them.
Courageous leaders are not immune to fear and don’t feel the need to give the impression that they are. They act despite their fears, making good, ethical, forward-looking, and value-aligned decisions when others lose their heads.
The Role of Vulnerability
Courageous leaders don’t need and believe in a façade of invincibility. They are aware of their humanity and know that others are aware of it, too. However, instead of besmirching their leadership image, their humanity makes them more relatable, genuine, and inspirational.
Vulnerability is inspirational.
Vulnerability lifts the veil from leaders’ authenticity. Authenticity allows leaders to build trust, establish emotional connections, and invite open communication.
It takes courage to admit mistakes and assume responsibility for decisions and outcomes. Vulnerable leaders are more likely to engage in courageous conversations, and leadership vulnerability supports mental health.
Vulnerability and open communication allow leaders to create deep emotional connections with their peers and reports. When leaders don’t hesitate to share their failures, successes, fears, and strengths, they create an environment of understanding and empathy, effectively inviting their interlocutors to open up emotionally.
Professor and author Brene Brown used the power of vulnerability in her books and TED Talks to connect with a wide audience. Her willingness to share her struggles, challenges, and setbacks allows her to turn vulnerability into strength, as she extols its authenticity-wise benefits.
Encouraging Innovation and Risk-taking
Courageous leaders inspire their teams through the example they set. When they push boundaries, take calculated risks, and explore new opportunities, they encourage their teams to do the same.
Other ways in which such leaders encourage innovation and calculated risk-taking behavior are:
- They create psychologically safe environments that support open communication.
- They act in alignment with a clear vision and purpose and use setbacks as learning opportunities.
- They trust their team members and empower them by delegating important work to them.
- They value diverse perspectives and celebrate innovation.
- They communicate well and are open to giving and receiving constructive feedback.
As the quote I used at the beginning of this article so wonderfully sums it up, the connection between courage and innovation is essential. Without courage, innovation and creativity cannot exist.
Courage enables creativity and innovation by allowing people to:
- Take risks
- Overcome fear
- Show vulnerability
- Explore new opportunities with an open mind
- Break taboos and overcome conventions
- Express themselves
- Adapt to new situations
- Assume the constructive attitude of positive discontent
Apple’s Steve Jobs is an obvious and well-known exponent of courageous leadership. Although forced to leave the organization in 1985, he returned to its helm in 1997, during some of the direst times Apple had seen.
Immediately, he undertook a series of courageous steps and made decisions that turned Apple from an ailing company into the tech trendsetter we know today. Specifically, he:
- Cut unprofitable projects
- Simplified the product line of the organization
- Turned Apple’s focus to innovation
- Created a line of iconic products like the iPhone, iPad, iPod, and iMac
Due to Jobs’ courage, Apple is one of the most forward-looking and innovative companies nowadays. The leader’s temerity continues to be a source of inspiration for the organization years after his death.
Navigating Difficult Conversations
One distinct sign of leadership courage is leaders’ willingness to take on challenges and tough conversations. Courageous leaders can handle difficult conversations by relying on their commitment to authenticity, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and communication skills. Courage also entails openness to feedback and a steadfast focus on solving problems instead of kicking the can down the road.
Intelligent leaders cannot afford to loathe difficult conversations.
Open and honest communication is particularly helpful in defusing tense situations and navigating difficult conversations.
Skillful communication facilitates problem-solving in many ways.
- It fosters understanding while promoting authenticity.
- It heads off misunderstandings, rumors, and the resulting resentment.
- It improves organizational culture by cultivating an environment focused on learning and clear communication.
- It defuses and prevents workplace conflicts and tension.
- It contributes to building trust.
Active listening is one of the cornerstones of healthy communication. Leaders who navigate uncomfortable situations and discussions well understand, however, that success requires a strategic approach. Here’s what you can do to navigate difficult conversations with your team:
- Prepare thoroughly
- Start on the right (positive) note
- Pick a setting that provides psychological safety for the parties
- Keep the communication focused on issues instead of people
- Always focus on a solution
- Actively encourage open communication
- Provide support while offering and requesting feedback
Nelson Mandela found himself in the crosshairs of adversity countless times throughout his life and leadership. He spent 27 years in prison, lost his law practice, stared down a death sentence, and lost loved ones while in jail. Yet he prevailed against all hardship and seemingly against all odds, gifting us a bevy of leadership lessons. The value of resilience and determination is a common theme of these lessons.
A determined, mature, and resilient leader:
- Can handle uncertainty better
- Knows how to overcome setbacks and turn them into opportunities
- Understands change and models inspirational behaviors
- Maintains mental toughness, finding it easier to adapt to adversity
People, like leaders, build reservoirs of positive and perhaps negative references for themselves throughout their lives. Leaders who overcome challenges provide such references for their employees. In the purest manner of leading by example, they inspire their reports to follow while teaching them first-hand how to overcome adversity.
Fostering a Culture of Courage
Courageous leaders can inspire employees by leading by example. Building a culture of courage in an organization requires intentional effort, however. To this end, leaders can focus on empowering their employees to create an environment of psychological safety where ideas flow freely back and forth and people aren’t afraid to voice their thoughts.
They can also communicate openly, set realistic expectations, and celebrate successes.
Empowerment, trust, and support are the cornerstones of such cultures.
- Empowered employees assume psychological ownership of organizational interests and goals. Endowed with this sense of responsibility, they are more likely to step forth and assume responsibility for their work.
- A supportive organizational culture provides the resources employees need to excel and encourages them to take leaps of faith into the unknown without fearing the consequences of a potential failure.
- Trust is the foundation of open communication and safety. It allows team members to take calculated risks without stressing about failure.
Creating a culture of psychological safety is an important practical step leaders can take to instill courage in their teams.
They can celebrate courageous acts to reward desirable behaviors. And they can encourage personal growth and development to facilitate a growth mindset.
Personal Growth and Development
Courageous team leadership unleashes confidence, creativity, and decision-making in employees. When empowered to act as they see fit, people are more likely to embrace change, deal with adversity, become resilient, and develop their emotional intelligence. Empowered employees take action. To take action, they must adopt a growth mindset, expand their comfort zones, and find ways to learn from failures.
As a leadership coaching professional, I have found that leadership maturity is the key to developing the mindsets that support courageous team leadership.
Mature leaders understand that failures are learning opportunities. And they know they can’t lead people by controlling them. Empowerment is the only way forward.
Mature leaders shun perfectionism in favor of iterative improvement and know that they can’t run away from conflict. Instead, they actively engage the parties in conflict and focus on problems instead of individuals to facilitate constructive solutions.
To develop and cultivate their courage, leaders can take measures like:
- Develop their self-awareness and self-reflection abilities
- Develop a growth-focused mindset that allows them to embrace change
- Build maturity, resilience, and the ability to learn from setbacks
- Set realistic goals and create a clear vision for success
- Grow comfortable with leadership vulnerability
- Seek to grow and develop continuously through mentorship and mutual support
Courageous leadership is inspirational and indispensable for success. Leaders must take chances and learn to embrace change. Without courage, leadership doesn’t amount to much.
Fear is a natural consequence of testing one’s limits and leaving the proverbial comfort zone. Intelligent, courageous leaders aren’t fearless. They understand fear and know how to control and manage it.
Transformative leadership is courageous leadership. To overhaul your teams and drive exceptional results, you must empower your employees and equip them with the courage to engage in honest, open dialogue.