The Power of Courage

accountability courage leadership May 18, 2022

Leaders need the courage to show up, step in, and stand up for a cause or a vision. They need courage to look ahead and see what’s coming, even if it’s difficult. They need courage to advocate for a change in direction when necessary. And most of all, leaders need the courage to take risks—to take a chance on options that others may not have had the courage to do. This kind of courage is what sets great leaders apart from mediocre leaders.

You might think that courage is something someone is born with: you either have it or you don’t. But that is simply not the case. So many of life’s most inspirational true stories are about people who stepped up and showed courage when they never had before. So what changed? Where did they find their courage? And can we, as leaders, find our courage in the same way?

Harvard Business Review describes courage as a series of discrete processes: setting goals and determining the importance of achieving them; tipping the power balance; weighing risks vs benefits; determining proper timing; and developing contingency plans.[1] The good news is that those are all processes that leaders are taught to engage in anyway. So if you practice good planning and strategy, you are already using some of the power of courage.

But there’s more to it than just good planning. Sometimes leadership calls for us to have difficult conversations or make unexpected decisions. When those moments arise, we must find a way to push our fears aside and forge forward. But how?

Use Your Mind Over Mind

It turns out, we can engage in practices that work with, rather than against, our brains in order to act in the face of fear. Contrary to popular belief, courage isn’t about moving forward head-first into something that terrifies us, it’s about finding ways to make what terrifies us less scary.

For starters, focus on solutions and your vision of success, rather than imagining all of the things that could go wrong along the way. That’s because when we focus on our fears, our amygdala generates fear chemicals, activating a fight, flight, or freeze response. While those responses are extremely helpful in cases where we must react to a life-threatening situation such as encountering a bear in the woods, they are debilitating when it comes to our ability to solve problems and think rationally. To make matters worse, the more we focus on problems, the more our brain creates neural pathways set up to see and anticipate problems rather than solutions. It puts us in a downward spiral towards failure and disappointment. Conversely, when we focus on solutions, our pre-frontal cortex lights up, activating creative thinking and problem-solving.

When it comes to taking a series of difficult steps, plan ahead, but don’t spend too much time worrying about all of the steps. Focus on the threshold, that critical first step that will set you on the path, instead of thinking about all of the steps. As the saying goes, just put one foot in front of the other and make one decision at a time.

Imagine the benefits. What will your reason be for doing the thing that scares you? No matter what it is, you are likely to learn, grow, and feel more confident just for having faced your fears, whether you achieve your goal or not. Your reward could be tangible, such as increased revenue, or a promotion. Or it might just be the satisfaction of knowing that you stood up for the best interests of your team. When you imagine the positive effects of having courage, you’ll get a natural boost of motivation to stay focused on moving forward. One almost inevitable positive side effect of courage is confidence. Once you try something that previously scared you, you’ll get a surge of positive self-worth. And that leads to more courage. It’s a beneficial spiral of success. Input more courage, output more confidence.

Look for inspiration in likely and unlikely places. If you’re still feeling antsy about a difficult task at hand, reach out to a mentor or coach and ask them about a time when they had similar fears. In hearing about someone else’s feelings, you’ll be reassured that your fears are just a natural byproduct the evolutionary brain––everyone is afraid at one time or another. And most of our worst fears never come to fruition. If you don’t have a mentor or coach you could reach out to for support, look for movies, books, and articles about ordinary humans who achieved extraordinary things, all by finding ways to look beyond their fears. We all have the power of courage available to us––all you have to do is use it.



About the Author

Sandra McDowell, MA, PCC, CPHR, SHRM-SCP

As the founder and voice behind eLeadership Academy™, Sandra McDowell helps leaders and organizations increase performance and well-being by leveraging insights from cognitive science to harness the untapped power of the brain.

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