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Leading With Courage

The current environment appears to be out of control to many of us. In the United States, our politics have grown increasingly divisive, the climate appears to be getting more extreme, inflation is impacting everyone’s pocketbook, and the global health crisis with changing daily information has increased feelings of ambiguity. All of this leads to heightened individual anxiety, so much so that on a day-to-day basis, each individual is living with a level of ambient stress. Everyone, groups, countries and yes, leaders, seem to be living in a time of TBA (To Be Announced).

Traditional organizational models with dominating hierarchical structures and command-and-control as the predominant cultural norm inhibits individuals from being courageous. How can we as individuals, employees, leaders, and organizations better manage ambiguity and establish a shared purpose? By ensuring we are manifesting courage individually and allowing open dialogues that reflect critical thinking, constructive criticism, input, and feedback.

Profiles in Courage

Is courage an outlier or core principle in your organization? Today we live in a complex callout culture, both personally and professionally. It takes critical thinking to identify what is courageous versus what is opportunistic. Courage is not typically at the top of the list of leadership prerequisites nor is it reflected in any job description. However, courage is key to everything: to challenge, share ideas, speak up, see something differently, try new things and receive feedback. And above all, courage is the enabler of critical thinking, a strategy and behavior that 2040 advocates and strengthens with its clients.

Many of our business cultures are still modeled on practices from the Industrial Age when individuals were perceived as cogs in the wheel and a means to an end. Open dialogue across all roles and levels of an organization, particularly those that flowed upstream, was frowned upon. The institutional hold of past times influences current norms that permeate an organization. As a result, the past erects roadblocks to the courage that mitigates critical thinking, questioning and yes, criticism.

How Courage Activates Change

Society seems to be more stable when responsibility is given to leaders across an organization, government, business, or the like. We tend to generalize humans into two classifications: those that lead and those that follow. Everyone knows his or her place. As such, rigid role attributes are assigned to each group; followers tend to be submissive and leaders that control the hierarchy often quash any open sharing of individual thought and criticism to and of upper levels. The operating principle is, “the leader knows best.”

What is generally overlooked is that collective intelligence and courage are what society needs to evolve and advance. Risk is a key factor in progress. Some risks have led to disastrous results, others have led to rapid advances that changed society with innovators worshipped as idols. What moves a paradigm change is a courage across society and organizations with a shared purpose. Examples include a societal or business problem that requires a solution, human rights violations that need individuals to come together, and a natural disaster response where a collective needs to operate like a well-oiled machine to save lives, recover and re-establish some new normal.

Courageous Leaders in Action

Leaders are historically measured by their ability to deliver a bottom-line result to meet all stakeholders’ expectations. Bottom-line results and expectations are reflected in employment contracts, performance plans and an organization’s strategic plan and goals. In a public company, the bottom line is essential to maintaining or growing the stock price to deliver a return on investment for the shareholders and takes precedence over all other activities and goals.

Generally speaking, executive and project teams and others set their own baselines of performance measurements regardless of if these actions move the needle or not. However, managing expectations is the key to applied “benchmarks.” There are a handful of courageous business leaders that we can look to for inspiration and consider as models of outstanding behavior. One example is Brian Cornell, CEO of Target who is a profile in courage in this arena. He announced to his board in 2016 that his pathway to a turnaround and accelerated growth was to commit $7 billion+ in capital investment. That meant people, processes, and culture. At the time, shares in Target fell in real-time as he announced the plan on an earnings call. But Cornell was courageous, he stuck to his guns and over-delivered after five years with net income up 638%.

But there is more to the story on courage. According to Bill George, Senior Fellow at Harvard Business School, “Courageous individuals take risks that go against the grain of their organizations. They make decisions with the potential for revolutionary change in their markets. Their boldness inspires teams, energizes customers, and positions organizations as leaders in societal change.”

Courage is not a skill learned in a classroom; it is mastered through life experiences of personal risk-taking. He adds, “If organizations are managed without courageous leadership and courageous individuals, then R&D programs, product pipelines, investments in emerging markets, and employees’ commitment to the company’s mission all wither. These organizations can slip into malaise and may eventually fail, even if their leaders move on to avoid being held accountable.”

Courage is a necessity for organizational change and organizational-wide transformation. A culture undergoing transformation, including the shareholders and stakeholders (staff, managers, customers, clients), may often manifest signs of ambient anxieties and fear of change. This can result in individuals internalizing these feelings as a threat. Courage, therefore, is important at all levels in an organization to mitigate anxiety and stress while allowing forward movement.
So, why do some people lack courage?

  • They focus solely on hitting their numbers and meeting their goals which is a short-term mentality.
  • They focus on the personal professional gain that takes precedence over organizational progress.
  • They avoid risk-taking that may make them look bad to peers, stakeholders, and the public.
  • They don’t want to look or sound stupid.
  • They don’t believe their voice will be valued.
  • They fear retaliation.
  • They fear criticism.
  • They fear failure.

Courageous Individual Leadership

Nancy Koehn, professor at Harvard Business School believes, “Most of our lives, we’re beset by crises. Courageous leaders and individuals are not cowed or intimidated. They realize that, in the midst of turbulence, there lies an extraordinary opportunity to grow and rise.” If leading through the trifecta of a global health crisis, disruptive financial markets and civil discord doesn’t require courage, what does?

So, what are the behaviors and beliefs of courageous leaders and individuals? Koehn believes there are five key characteristics:

1. Authenticity

“Authentic leadership serves as the strongest predictor of employees’ job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and workplace happiness. Research also shows that organizations, which are comprised of leaders who are true to themselves, demonstrate improvements in both employee trust and performance.” In short, authentic leadership necessitates continual self-improvement.”

2. Resilience

“Resilience is the capacity to not only endure great challenges, but to get stronger in the midst of them. A leader’s ability to do this is profound, not only for him or herself, but for the impact it exerts on others and the larger mission.”

3. Emotional Intelligence

“A keen sense of EI is vital to being a leader who can collaborate with others to achieve organizational goals.” Self-awareness is key and continuous iteration unlocks success. EI leaders practice self-management and social awareness. According to research by TalentSmart, “90 percent of top performers in the workplace have a high degree of emotional intelligence, compared to 20 percent of bottom performers.”

4. Self-Discipline

“When facing a crisis, you need to be prepared to lead under pressure and remain composed. Realize that in the heat of the moment, nothing an individual leader can do can solve the whole situation, you’re better off acting from your strongest, calmest self than you are taking the first reactive, immediate action.”

5. Commitment to Purpose

“We’re looking for leaders who can help us make a leap of faith and be integral to creating a better world, and to believe this is worthy of doing and possible.” A study by DDI, reports that purpose builds organizational resilience and improves long-term financial performance. Being purpose-driven leverages an organization’s objectives to inspire a team with a sense of mission.”

Why Courage Defines Leadership Today

Consider the circumstances of running an organization today. We operate in uncertain times with ambiguous outcomes. Employees are emotionally and psychologically exhausted. Career fulfillment is at an all-time low evidenced by the Great Resignation. We are suffering from Zoom/Teams fatigue and long for meaningful in-person experiences. Employees are looking for leadership to help them find a path forward. We can’t really plan in the conventional sense, but we can act with great deliberation in the moment. And that takes courage.

Executive coach Ken Jacobs says employees need leaders “to have the courage to listen to feedback about leadership performance.” That means leaders need to listen with an open mind. He adds, “Think of your team as leaders in training who want to know how they can be better and hit their own standards of excellence.” And even more important, he says “They need you to have the courage to continue developing as a leader, for the rest of your career.”

At 2040, we work with clients to help them understand that courage must permeate an organization. That means it takes personal security in an organization for employees to have the bravery and courage to voice ways organizations can learn and improve. We are talking about everyday courage, not dramatic whistleblowing.

According to Jim Deter, the John L. Colley Professor of Business Administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and the author of “Choosing Courage: The Everyday Guide to Being Brave at Work” and Evan Bruno a PhD candidate in leadership and organizational behavior at the Darden School of Business, “Challenging bosses about strategic moves or operating policies, speaking honestly to peers or subordinates who aren’t pulling their weight, making and owning bold decisions — are acts of workplace courage.”


Accountability is critical at all levels in an organization. Deter and Bruno report that, “Teams in which peers hold one another accountable are more likely than others to identify areas of improvement and increase both individual and group effectiveness. And taking on stretch assignments or championing a bold process change can be a significant driver of personal growth and learning for individuals — which, of course, also benefits the organization.”

Taking a courageous stand has inherent risks, clearly revealed by the #metoo movement. It is often difficult to demonstrate courage if the workplace culture does not support any of these actions:

  • Standing up to authority figures
  • Confronting peers
  • Tackling difficult interactions with stakeholders
  • Sacrificing personal security for the greater good

Most individuals by nature do not like confrontation. Confrontation takes courage to execute and being able to accept the consequences. Deter and Bruno are quick to point out that courageous behaviors are “likely to be met with some resistance — from above, from peers, or from external stakeholders. It stands to reason that people see them as risky and thus don’t do them nearly enough, despite their potential value. But even when the target of action is a subordinate, holding that person accountable for undesirable choices and actions is rare because of the courage it requires. As hard as these conversations can be, managers who delay or avoid them inadvertently sacrifice organizational learning and growth. While many courageous behaviors are risky because they can alienate people with economic, organizational, or social power, others largely involve stretching or challenging one’s sense of self.”

Courage Matters

We need to consider the importance of everyday courage, particularly in times of increasing ambiguity and uncertainty. We need to enable open dialogue without judgment across organizations and society for change and transformation to be successful. At 2040, we have the courage to say and share what many others won’t, and we work with our clients to inculcate courage at every level of the organization. Courage transcends obvious organizational leadership and needs to be supported across all activities, upstream, downstream and cross-stream. Courage to share honest information, feedback, and constructive criticism. We help organizations design a workplace culture that encourages speaking up and even challenging the status quo as keys to success and shared purpose.

Get in touch with us!

2040 helps organizations navigate the sea changes of finding their new normal. We offer actionable expertise in the strategy and operations of digital growth and engagement, empowering an empathetic workplace culture, strengthening your value proposition and driving revenues.  We’ve been in your shoes and we know what impedes transformation … and what unlocks it.

Onward and upward from the 2040 Team

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