Courage: The Foundation of Leadership


Small acts of courage

Photo: Pexels/unsplash

Today, I did a very brave thing, at least for an introvert…

I asked a complete stranger to mentor me on the basis of hearing her keynote speech and subsequent Q&A.

What intrigued me most was how aware and mindful I was about each step in the process:

  • the idea – audacious as it seemed – popped into my head
  • I decided to do it
  • I patiently waited until the opportunity arose to speak to her
  • I asked her to mentor me

Now the gap between deciding and asking was not very long.  Maybe five minutes.  Ten minutes max.

And in that time I found at least 17 reasons why I shouldn’t do it:

  • She probably doesn’t offer mentoring
  • She straight up doesn’t have enough time in her schedule
  • She does mentor, but is so sought after she can pick her own clients (and not me)
  • She’s actually in a different city – how would that even work!
  • I probably can’t afford her services
  • She probably gets asked ALL the time and will fob me off
  • She will think I’m an idiot
  • She’ll hear why I think she’d be a great mentor and be underwhelmed/offended
  • She’ll hear the ‘big idea’ that I want help with and be even more underwhelmed/offended
  • … [insert emotional excuse here] you get the picture

But I’m proud to say, I did it anyway.

In a recent article, I wrote about the critical role that leaders have to play in our society, particularly now, when we face some very significant challenges to the future of society and life on our planet (not meaning to over-dramatise).

So what is courage, and why does it matter?

Feel the fear and do it anyway

Courage is not an absence of fear.  It is not bravado.  It is not recklessness.

It is understanding the risks and the potential repercussions, and then making the decision to do what is right, rather than what is easy.

This exceptional TED talk by Tim Ferriss is perhaps one of the most inspiring talks on the subject of fear that I’ve seen for a long time.

In my own experience, fear is often an indicator that I’m doing (or about to do) something important, that I’m standing on the edge of something momentous, and I’m not sure whether I can make it to the other side intact.  Whenever I feel fear creeping in – I try and lean into it, rather than run away, but it is hard.

In the modern workplace, the fear response is ridiculously out of place – the things that trigger our fight/flight/freeze response include:

  • Being laughed at
  • Making a mistake
  • Public speaking
  • Lack of clarity about a task or project
  • Missing a deadline
  • Restructures

Cat HissingNow some of these things are scary – they can frighten the daylights out of you – but fighting, fleeing or freezing is not going to help you in any of these situations, and you amygdala’s ’emotional override’ of your prefrontal cortex – the bit of your brain that can rationalise and reason and make decisions – is singularly unhelpful.

The approach Ferriss outlines in his talk, allows you to take the emotion out of your fears, and rationally evaluate the risks – including the often overlooked risk of doing nothing.

As Plato said, “Courage is knowing what not to fear”.

Why does courage matter?

Speaking Out
Photo: Pixabay/Aitoff

Your job, as a leader, is to do the right thing, for whatever it is you are leading – an organisation, a cause, a calling.

Doing the right thing requires you to have enough courage to:

  • Speak truth to power
  • Not oversimplify complex issues
  • Reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable
  • Tackle issues head-on (with compassion)
  • Stand strong in spite of criticism
  • Lead by example
  • Demonstrate commitment in the face of adversity
  • Value diversity
  • Go first

Is this hard?  You bet!

Is it important?  No, it’s essential.  Without the courage to do these things, your leadership will wilt and fade, and someone else will step in to do what you cannot.

…So what did she say?

She said no.

Very nicely.

Did any of the bad things I imagined happen?  No

Am I glad I asked?  Absolutely.  If I hadn’t, I would always have wondered…

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