Courage Leadership: Step Up to Your Next Level


By Sandra Ford Walston

Opportunities for courage leadership at work occur nearly every day. From speaking up during a company meeting to overcoming an obstacle that hinders professional advancement, these instances are often the defining moments of a person’s career.

Unfortunately, most people do not claim courage as one of the primary virtues they display at work. They mistakenly believe that courage is only relevant during particularly perilous times. As a result, they don’t perceive exploring new ideas, confronting gossip, transitioning to a new career, transcending rejection or taking initiative as courageous leadership moments.

In reality, each person has the capacity to be a courageous leader regardless of his or her company position. Whether you’re a graphic designer, a sales executive, dental assistant or the CEO, how you confront workday issues and contribute to your own professional advancement speak volume about your courage quotient and set a leadership example others can follow. 

The Heart and Spirit of Courage-Centering
The original definition of the word courage comes from the French word corage, meaning “heart and spirit.” Historically, great leaders have always acted from their hearts, but notions of courage as heroic have diminished this heartfelt value of courage. Without courage, however, a key part of our spirit is lost. Perhaps that’s why Aristotle believed that courage is the first of human virtues because it makes all the other virtues possible.

When you come from your heart and spirit and allow your passion for what you do to guide you, you are displaying your true authenticity. Many people prefer to settle for conformity or complacency (courage killers) rather than display courage at work. They believe that advancing professionally is not worth the sacrifice or time to accomplish it. They don’t want to give up their annual vacation, attend evening school to obtain a degree or certification, give up their golf game for a few years or commit to their inner calling. Such people are not acting courageously. Courage centering is a discipline.

People with courage state their goals and then go backwards from there to look for what’s possible. They develop new models when the door to an old model closes. These people move forward and upward, never quit and take risks to reinvent themselves. Setting challenging goals and taking calculated risks reveal their heart and spirit. Because of their desire to continually learn and improve their performance, they build an innate reservoir of courage that leads them down the path to success.

Step Up with Courage
Advancing professionally and building your courage reservoir is similar to climbing a standard six-foot ladder. The first step is low and wide, with each consecutive step getting higher and narrower. Near the top of the ladder the ascent can get a little shaky as the steps taper. At work, a project that requires you to learn a new software program may perpetuate anxiety or feelings of ineptness. Conquering an obstacle or revealing vulnerability are behaviors of courage. They support you to face the challenge head on. What would happen if you said, “It takes a lot of courage for me to admit that I made the wrong choice on the new software we purchased and installed this past year? Are you stuck on step?

People who continually “step up” do not easily give up on their opinions and judgments, even when challenged. Their willingness to be ostracized after a meeting for expressing an idea requires self-efficacy—the capacity for producing a desired result or effect. This behavior is very different from being close-minded and narrow. In other words, they believe in themselves and their skills. Even more important, they do not blame others for their shortcomings or failures. They hold themselves 100 per cent accountable and recognize the value of courageous will. They have control over the patterns that govern their beliefs and know their zone of courageous energy.

As you continue to climb each step of the ladder, your motivation to improve standards of excellence, to commit to the organization’s standards and goals, and to seize opportunities that allow you to take setbacks and obstacles in stride intensifies. Unfortunately, 20 per cent of people never make it past the first rung. They don’t identify goals and quit before they start. The other 80 per cent of people set goals for professional advancement. As the challenges increase, the group takes a break to regroup and refuel. 65 per cent of the people decide they are content to stay where they are, so they settle in. Only the remaining 15 per cent reset their goals, commit to their original vision and purpose, and continue the climb. When they reach a difficult moment, they ask themselves, “Do I really want this?” Then, after reevaluating their path, they decide whether the sacrifice is worth the goal. If they need to make adjustments to their plan, they do. They constantly refocus and continue their climb out of conscious choice. For such courageous leaders, settling is not an option. They reach the top rung of the ladder. They seem to understand this ancient Chinese proverb: “He who hesitates before each step spends his life on one leg.”

What rung of the ladder will satisfy you?

Tips for Applying Courage at Work
Courageous leaders recognize defining moments and apply courage at work. This conscious action is vital to their success. By developing the following behaviors in yourself, you’ll be better able to call upon your courage when needed.

1. Constantly affirm your strength and determination
Realize that no one expects you to be perfect. They do, however, expect you to do your best. Take time for daily reflection so you can evaluate your resources and how you can best use them. When you know how your strengths can benefit your organization, you’ll be able to do what you believe is right and see any challenge as an opportunity for professional growth.

2.  Hurdle obstacles and take risks
Every behavior you exhibit and every action you take is a conscious choice. Give yourself permission to choose courage so you can creatively navigate your way around, through or over any obstacles that cross your path. When you feel reluctance set in, ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen if I do this?” Usually the worst never occurs, so take the risk.

3. Manifest vision
There are no shortcuts when it comes to courageous leadership. Know where you want to go and develop a crystal clear vision of your goal. Become stubborn about attaining your vision so you can discard any non-productive judgments others put on you.

4. Reflect self-esteem
All your actions reflect who you are and what you stand for. If you’re repeating a certain behavior that you don’t like, look inside and ask, “What do I need to change?” Sharpen your skills and abilities through education, reading, and training, and surround yourself with the kind of people you want to become.

5. Speak up
If you feel uncomfortable in a situation, believe your intuition and tell those involved why you believe the situation is not right. Exercise your courageous voice by challenging the status quo and making waves when someone is putting you down or when water-cooler gossip is getting out of hand.

Claim Your Courage Today
If courage has eluded you in the past, now is the time to step up and make your daily job performance a profile in courage—the one that reveals your heart and spirit. Confront issues even when your own job is at stake. Be vulnerable to admit a mistake. Reinvent yourself to transcend an old career and begin a new one. And most important, manifest a vision and follow it. When you follow a decisive course of action and do what it takes to advance professionally, you become a catalyst for profound change and an initiator who can lead others to the same path. With such courageous leadership capabilities, professional success is imminent.

Sandra Ford Walston, The Courage Expert, innovator of STUCKThinking™, is an organizational effectiveness/ learning consultant, speaker, corporate trainer and a courage coach, specialising in understanding women’s leadership issues, everyday courage behaviors, courageous leadership and individual personalities and leadership styles that focus on the tricks and traps of the human condition. She is the internationally published author of COURAGE, STUCK and FACE IT! You can reach Sandra at

Originally published in HR Matters.

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