I work with many tremendously talented people who repeatedly overcome obstacles and succeed, but I also see others who remain stuck in a perpetual negative cycle they believe they’re powerless to escape. As an executive coach I’ve learned that there’s one key differentiator: courage. And it’s not just the run-of-the-mill “gladiator” archetype of courage. Rather, it’s an insightful, reflective, innovative, and often quiet type of courage.
More importantly, I’ve learned that this type of courage is a skill, not a trait—meaning it can be taught. Everyone can develop the courage to drive success as an entrepreneur, as a leader, or in his or her personal life. The key is understanding the right kind of courage and the self-destructive cycles that derail courage. Once you’ve achieved that, you can work courageous skills into your daily routine.
Portraits of courage, and the success it drives
Look at any successful company leader or agent of world change, and you’ll notice a pattern. Steve Jobs shared the philosophy that built Apple into an innovation powerhouse with graduates of Stanford University: “Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition,” he advised them. Jeff Bezos left a lucrative Wall Street career to start and operate Amazon.com from his garage at a time when Internet-based businesses were unproven. To this day, Bezos drives a business culture based on relentless courageousness and experimentation.
Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year old Pakistani activist for women’s right to education, widened her campaign to the global level after the Taliban shot her in the head. Proclaimed by Time magazine as one of the hundred most influential people in the world, Malala is the youngest person ever nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
I consider Steve, Jeff, and particularly Malala the “Olympic athletes” of courage. Not everyone is capable of their extreme courage—or would want to replicate it—but we leaders can learn from it.
How courage gets derailed
Courage often gets confused with fearlessness, and that’s a mistake. To become courageous leaders, we need to understand that truly courageous people face their fears, rather than avoiding them. They know how to use fear as a tool to overcome adversity. Nelson Mandela once said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”
Most often, courage gets derailed though a self-defeating cycle I call the Adversity/Fear/Paralysis Cycle. The natural response to adversity is fear—that you won’t be able overcome it. However, the problem isn’t the fear itself, it’s the paralysis that may emerge and keep us from responding productively to the adversity. Once paralysis happens, it triggers more (and usually worse) adversity. And so the cycle repeats.
Adversity is a normal part of life. Businesses face it when new competitors emerge; people encounter it when they’re seen as a “commodity” that can be outsourced. Adversity might even manifest as a job promotion if the more demanding role is accompanied by uncertainty and insecurity.
In the late 1990s, leaders at Eastman Kodak ignored the emergence of digital photography, missed the opportunity to evolve, and the company went into bankruptcy by 2012. Ironically, Kodak invented the core technology used in digital cameras. When faced with adversity (i.e., disruptive technology), their fear of change triggered a paralysis that prevented the company from adapting and leveraging its own invention.
Break out of the Adversity/Fear/Paralysis cycle
The fear in this cycle isn’t the problem; in fact it’s often your best tool for resilience and innovation. Here’s why. Each time we experience fear, we can use it as a springboard into courage instead of diving into paralysis. In fact, I believe fear means we’re just one decision away from courage. Once we shift to a position of courage (i.e. power), we can use our creativity to find solutions—in short, we can reinvent the adversity as a new opportunity. The key is learning the skills to leap from fear to courage.
Five skills for becoming a courageous leader
1. Seek the hard truth. No one likes adversity, but avoiding unpleasant realities is a sure path to paralysis. You can spot a paralyzed leader: he or she denies peer/employee feedback, gets defensive about customer criticism, or refuses to hear bad news. Courageous people strive to understand the hard truths despite their fears of the outcome; this maximizes their potential for success.
2. Have courageous conversations. To discover the hard truth, you must build the habit of initiating courageous dialogue in which your only goal is to discover or communicate a hard truth. To do this, you must create a safe environment, avoid defensiveness, and listen carefully. Keep your conversation productive, and remember that overly emotional communication (i.e. yelling, defensiveness, etc.) is never courageous.
3. Embrace your fears and use them to your advantage. Most people are uncomfortable with fear and believe they shouldn’t even admit fear. Unacknowledged fears can’t be addressed and are likely to become paralysis. Examined fears transform into problems to be solved, and provide the opportunity for creativity and innovation.
4. Risk “intelligent” failure. Intolerance of failure is another sure path to paralysis. Without risk there can be no learning or growth. Build a culture that encourages experimentation and “intelligent” failure—meaning that failure is contained and delivers learning for future success. This is especially important in times of challenge or uncertainty.
5. Remember courageousness is contagious—and paralysis is too. When you display courage you inspire those around you. When you are in the presence of courageous people you will be inspired. Surround yourself with courageous people, and en-“courage” your team. Beware the impact of people entrenched in paralysis.
Why I’m committed to building courageous leaders
We have big challenges ahead—as a society, as a country, and as a world community—and courageous people are the only ones who can move us forward. We need courageous leaders in big business to build companies that can be successful, sustainable and ethical in today’s complex economic environment; we need courageous entrepreneurs to deliver innovative solutions to our most daunting problems; we need courageous government leaders who can move past divisiveness and build societies that foster broad prosperity. And we need courageous individuals to help us achieve real and sustainable economic growth—people who will not just survive but prosper in today’s world.
I invite you to contact me, add your thoughts, and let me know about your experiences with courageousness.