As both a recovering corporate executive and a successful entrepreneur studying leadership in all its forms, I’ve seen my fair share of great leaders — and sadly some pretty horrible ones. When you think about it, we’ve all spent most of our careers noting, whether consciously or unconsciously, those leaders that are hitting it out of the park and those who should be kicked out of the park.
But what differentiates the two? What’s the secret sauce that enables some leaders to rock their results and teams, and those who simply run in place? After nearly two decades, 400 clients and 250,000 leaders, we think we’ve discovered the secret: courageous leadership.
Courageous Leadership Isn’t About Being Fearless
When most of us think of courage, we generally think about those death-defying feats with sometimes life-threatening — or what feels like career-threatening — consequences. Running into the burning building, thwarting a robbery, or betting the company on a new, surprising innovation or strategy. Our research shows the reality is something very different. When we cite courage in others, it’s generally the day-to-day activities that people note as being courageous: sharing your opinion that isn’t in line with a senior leader, making the decision to take a lateral career move, saying no to that horrible and time-wasting meeting, or even taking on a big presentation when presenting isn’t your thing.
Said simply, courage isn’t about being fearless, it’s being able to take action in spite of your fear. The most successful leaders have become comfortable with the discomfort of that butterfly-inducing uncertainty or fear. The power is in realizing that twinge of fear is simply a signpost between action and inaction. The choice is truly yours to make. Therefore, the next time you have that butterfly moment, take a pause and make a conscious choice to act rather than letting the fear stop you cold.
Courage is Entirely Personal
Have you ever tried to talk someone out of their fear? If you have kids, you know exactly what I’m talking about. How did that work out for you? Well, it’s the same when it comes to courage.
Courage is entirely personal. What takes courage for me won’t be the same for you or anyone else. For example, most people are afraid of public speaking, but for me, getting up on stage is my favorite thing! No matter how I try to talk someone into their courage to get up on stage, only they can make the choice to not allow the discomfort of their anxiety and fear to stop them.
Great leaders know that every time they feel that anxiety, that twinge of fear, they’re pushing themselves to do something new or different, and the very action allows them to build their courage muscle.
Courage is Like a Muscle, it Grows With Exercise
If you were training for an Ironman Triathlon — which I can assure you I would NEVER — you wouldn’t begin your training by jumping in a lake and trying to swim a mile or biking 25 miles. You’d begin your training with bite-sized distances to find your rhythm and start to build your endurance. Our research has shown that building your courageous leadership skills is exactly the same. First, we identify that we all have the courage muscle and we consciously begin to exercise it. We don’t let the little setbacks get in our way.
This is where courageous leaders really hit their stride. They try new things, learn from what worked (and what didn’t), and apply it to the next opportunity. They don’t personalize the failure nor do they simply throw in the towel. If my imaginary triathlon training program calls for three miles one day and I just can’t do it, I don’t stop and discard the dream. Most of us would get right back out there the next day.
Imagine how different our actions and choices would be at work if when we failed a bit or an outcome wasn’t everything we hoped for, we simply realized that action made us a little stronger, better and more likely to be successful next time.
If you’re ready to build your courageous leadership muscle, only you can do it. Just like no one else can train in your place for that imaginary triathlon, you have to make the choice to build your own courage muscle. Next time you feel that twinge of uncertainty or fear, take a moment and ask yourself, “What’s the best thing that can happen if I take action in spite of this fear?” Give yourself credit for the action and keep building that muscle!