The Art of Courageous Leadership

The Art of Courageous Leadership

In my years as a coach, mediator and leadership specialist one of the most common themes that keeps coming up is how leaders can be courageous. It might be courage to have a difficult conversation, courage to make a particular decision, courage to be authentic or courage to take the first step in a new direction, but one thing is clear: If leaders aren’t courageous then not only will they be ineffective, but they won’t achieve their full potential. 

This article explores what it means to be a courageous leader and share tips for building your own courage as a leader. 

What does it mean to be a courageous leader?

“The root of the word courage is cor – the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage had a very different definition than it does today. Courage originally meant “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” Over time, this definition has changed, and today, courage is more synonymous with being heroic. Heroics is important and we certainly need heroes, but I think we’ve lost touch with the idea that speaking honestly and openly about who we are, about what we’re feeling, and about our experiences (good and bad) is the definition of courage. Heroics is often about putting our life on the line. Ordinary courage is about putting our vulnerability on the line. In today’s world that’s pretty extraordinary.” – Brené Brown

I love this definition of courage from Brené Brown. That to be courageous is to be vulnerable. Having courage means facing and overcoming your fears. Being uncertain of the outcome, but taking the next step anyway.

Courage isn’t a new leadership skill, it’s something that has been required to be an effective leader for many years. The reality though is that in these uncertain times, it is more required in our leaders than ever. Back in 2009 Forbes shared an article outlining three types of Executive courage:

Try courage: This is the courage required to take initiative and action.To step up, try new things and be willing to make mistakes. You might fail, you might get it wrong, or you might do something completely incredible!

Trust courage: This is courage to have confidence in others, to let go of control, to show faith in people and be open to direction and change. To accept that there are different ways to do things and be open to them.

Tell courage: This is the courage of voice, being unafraid to raise difficult issues, share unpopular opinions and engage others with candour and conviction. Having the difficult conversations, confronting thorny issues, regularly giving feedback both positive and constructive. 

Courageous Leadership

Why do we need courageous leaders?

Exceptional leaders have always had courage. But it’s needed now more than ever. Without courage we sit in our comfort zone and do what we’ve always done. We don’t fulfil our potential. And now, we need to be the best that we can at both an individual and organisational level. This is the only way to drive the solutions that are going to be needed to solve the world’s problems.

As a leaders, when you combine courage with compassion, you can create truly psychologically safe environments. This type of culture that attracts and keeps the best teams as well as drives creativity and innovation. 

Tips for becoming a courageous leader

Face the fear and take action: The first step to moving out of our comfort zone is to face the fear that holds you back. Take some time to reflect deeply on the fears and limiting beliefs that stop you trying new things and identify then take the first tiny step. If you find this difficult it may help to work with a coach.

See failure as an opportunity to learn: Leaders and organisations who embrace failure can create learning opportunities, avoid blame cultures, encourage risk taking and drive creativity and innovation. Focus on the opportunity you and your team have to learn from failures and then move on.  

Let go: New leaders and business founders especially can find letting go of what they’ve always done difficult. Challenge yourself to consider where you add most value and let others do the rest. Recognise that just because it’s done differently to the way that you might do doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

Say what needs to be saidCIPD research found that the two things that leaders find most difficult are handling conflict and having difficult conversations. Holding back from these situations can allow problems to go unresolved and resentment to build in the team. However, a  recent HBR article outlined the challenges with feedback given ineffectively. As leaders it’s a skill that we’re often just expected to have, but really it’s one that takes time to learn so we can handle these situations courageously and compassionately. 


I support leaders in developing courage. The next cohort of the Heart-Centred Leaders Programme begins in September. Find out more here, get in touch on 07980 838945 or email me at [email protected] 

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