What you’ll learn

  • How to choose courage within your leadership role 
  • The key traits of today’s courageous leaders  
  • 4 steps leaders can take to begin their courageous journey

Some aspects of good leadership might come to you naturally. You may be a born communicator or have a gift for inspiring and motivating people. Other aspects are universally uncomfortable and challenging—and one of those is courage.

Courage isn't a natural response to difficult situations and decisions. It's a learned and practiced one. Courageous leadership involves fighting through your natural responses in those moments, which will ultimately hold you back.

Courage in leadership is the first step to new thinking

"Courage" is one of five leadership mindsets that serve an Enterprise Leader—a leader with the breadth of skills and the learned art of horizontal thinking that's necessary to successfully lead an organization in today's world.

As Aristotle said, "Courage is the mother of all virtues because without it, you cannot consistently perform the others." By the same token, without the courage mindset, you cannot consistently apply the other four mindsets:

  • Purpose
  • Awareness of self and impact
  • Inclusion that matters
  • Integrative thinking

Leaders are always facing the unknown

The acronym VUCA is used to describe times of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity—all things we've become intimately familiar with during the last few years.

As a leader, you may have had to navigate situations that are entirely new, that none of your previous experience has trained you to manage, or make decisions based on very little data because nothing in history was comparable.

Courage is the skill that emboldens you to do these things , It allows you to take steps into the unknown when you might otherwise freeze up.

Humans are wired for fear, not courage

All leaders—and all people, for that matter—have fears. And they're rarely unique. Everyone fears failure when they aim high. Everyone fears looking foolish when they try something new. Everyone fears damaging their reputation when their name is attached to a decision.

These fears tell you to do nothing. Doing nothing is the easy choice. It feels low-risk. It doesn't grab attention.

We are also hard-wired to avoid loss or, more specifically, to avoid losing something we already have. Missing out on a huge potential win is also a loss (often a much bigger one), but it's less tangible and easier to dismiss. This bias is so deeply ingrained in our thought patterns that we may not even notice it affecting our decisions.

Humans are masters at rationalizing decisions and justifying actions, letting fear take the wheel and choosing inaction while telling ourselves we have made a logic-based decision.

It's crucial to recognize that behavior in yourself if you want to change it.

Enterprise Leaders overcome their hard-wiring and choose courage

True Enterprise Leaders do three courageous things:

They don't fear what could go wrong

Any Enterprise Leader will tell you there have been times when their fear was urging them to “wait it out” and stick with the status quo. Yet they chose to do otherwise: risk the possibility of their reputation taking a hit for the sake of the enterprise. They won’t tell you it was easy or comfortable. It’s just that they've become better at facing their fear and have grown more comfortable with being uncomfortable.

They get it wrong sometimes

Enterprise Leaders will also tell you that not every risk they've taken has landed perfectly- sometimes they get it wrong or make a misstep. But they will also tell you they’ve learned valuable lessons from each of those experiences that they’ve channeled towards achieving stronger future outcomes.

If you only do something that's certain to succeed, you'll rarely do anything. As Jeff Bezos famously said, "If you wait for 90% [of the information], in most cases, you're probably being slow."

Decisions are not supposed to be perfect or infinite. Courageous leaders can only do what looks to be the right thing in the moment, with the willingness to pivot or backtrack if priorities or goals change in the future.

They take a hit for the team

Enterprise Leaders are willing to prioritize the success of the business over protecting their own reputation. Sometimes, leaders must make a decision that will be unpopular or put their name to something that might not work out. Though it's natural to want to protect their own interests, the “courage” mindset used by Enterprise Leaders is about acting in ways that serve the greatest good of all stakeholders and the business instead of what's good for the leader’s own interest and personal gain.

Face your fears with a courageous leader mindset

The courageous leadership mindset requires leaders to rewire their thinking on three key issues: discomfort, risk, and failure.

Embrace discomfort

Being a courageous leader isn't easy, and it isn't comfortable. If it were, everyone would do it. Good leadership sometimes feels uncomfortable, but you must do it anyway.

Likewise, feeling afraid isn't something to be ashamed of or hide from. Fear is wired into our brains because humans wouldn't have survived without it. If you deny the presence of fear, that fear might still sway your decisions and may even stop you from making effective ones. For example, you might be afraid to invest budget in a particular initiative. But embracing the fear can help you take a step back and consider all the factors first, enabling you to make the most informed decision that will yield a strong ROI.

Leaders need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable so that discomfort doesn't paralyze them.

Embrace risk

Nothing has a 100% guaranteed success rate. Action always involves risk.

But we tend to underestimate the cost of inaction. When the shift to digital photography began, the people at Kodak decided to stick with 35 mm film. Faced with the risk of personal failure or loss of reputation that comes with a dramatic, headline-making pivot in strategy, they chose to do nothing. They later learned the cost of this inaction when the company entered bankruptcy in 2012.

If you remember that risk is always present, risk no longer stands as a reason to do nothing.

Embrace failure

Failure can feel agonizing, but that doesn't mean it's bad. Every failure comes with learning, and each failure can be the first step toward a bigger success.

After a failure, ask yourself, "What can I learn from this? How can I share this learning across my organization?"

As well as changing personal perspective, leaders need to de-risk failure at an organizational level. Fear of failure stops people from sharing information and ideas and trying new things. Imagine the speed of progress that could be achieved if every person in your organization benefited from the shared learnings from every individual failure.

Transcend talk and demand action

Simply embracing this courageous leadership mindset as a theory won't change anything. It needs to be put into action. Here are 4 key steps leaders can take to begin their journey.

1. Find someone to look up to

There are countless examples of courageous individuals all around us, both in the news and in our lives, who put themselves on the line for a cause or issue they care about. It's easy to look at them and think that you don't have that same courage, but in fact, you do. Most of us just haven't been compelled to act with it.

Those individuals have the fears and wiring that we do—they've simply found a motivation to overcome it. Role models can help us to see something that's already within ourselves. Pick someone close to home to use as a reminder that it's possible for anyone. When you need to act with courage, ask yourself what they would do.

2. Embody courage

Courageous leaders hold themselves with confidence. They stand tall, with their shoulders back and their head high. Adopting these characteristics will make it easier to connect with the courage that's inside you.

Before entering a room or video call, imagine how you would hold yourself if you were being brave. Take on the physicality of courageous leadership. If you stand, walk and speak like a courageous leader would, the remaining behaviors will follow.

3. Start small

If you wait for courage to come before you act, you'll never do anything. Courage only comes from doing the things we are afraid to do.

You can build courage through small but difficult actions. Giving feedback, addressing performance issues and holding people accountable all help you grow comfortable with discomfort and prepare for the bigger actions later. Starting today, take every opportunity to do something difficult.

4. Make courage a habit

Start practicing courage every single day to create a habit. The goal is to make courage your default setting when faced with fear.

Think of courage as a muscle. Using it is like going to the gym. The first time you go, it's hard and uncomfortable. If you keep going, what was once hard becomes easy. Years down the line, you'll be able to do things you never imagined.

Build leadership courage in increments

Courage doesn't develop overnight—it is part of the long and uncomfortable process of learning Enterprise Leadership. If you're ready to begin this journey, talk with us about our Enterprise Leadership Institute. For more inspiration, watch "How to Be Brave," a TEDx Talk by Korn Ferry Senior Client Partner, Margie Warrell.

Leadership & Professional Development

Help your people exceed their potential, so they can unlock yours.