Flexing Your Leadership Courage

By Steve Yacovelli

When you think about being courageous in the workplace, even if you’re being your bravest self, there are still many factors that can prevent you from being your most courageous (and effective) leadership self. Here are the top three courage-inhibitors that come up for leaders:

1. The Challenge of Fear

If you were to ask around, you’d find that a lack of courage and an abundance of complacency in the workplace come down to one simple thing: fear. When you think about this in the business context, it breaks into two subtypes: 1) fear of failure (perceived or actual) and 2) fear of feeling like an outsider. 

With the first fear, you tend to strive for perfectionism, resulting in the idea that submitting anything less than perfect could alter the opinion of a boss or trusted ally. Typically, like most folks, you want to put your best foot forward; you want to be a rock-star performer. You see anything less as failure (even if it’s on par with others’ best work).

But the second fear comes from a more personal place, where challenging the status quo may make you feel like an outsider within your own workplace. At some point in your career, you’ve likely had that feeling (or maybe you currently do). It’s not fun; it’s alienating, and for some, it’s a feeling they don’t want to ever feel again. 

So, in a work context, this desire to avoid the feeling of being an outsider leads you to be compliant, even if at your core you know the idea at hand really needs to be challenged for the good of the organization. Having courage here means being OK with failing; it’s being OK with others perceiving you as an outsider for the sake of doing better work, benefiting your team members, or moving your organization forward.

2. The Challenge of Assumptions

As humans, it’s common to fill in the gaps when presented with a situation where all the data isn’t available. It’s easy to connect the dots between one problem and the next, even when the two aren’t related, without taking the time to examine your own approach. It’s how we humans are wired. 

When you think of this in the context of courage, you’re either avoiding understanding the situation, or you’re scared (back to fear again) to dive more deeply into the truth of the situation. Having leadership courage means lifting those rocks and seeing what’s underneath. The lack of courage causes you to make assumptions about the situation without knowing all the information.

3. The Challenge of Being Locked into Current Behaviors  

Let’s talk about change for a minute. On a fundamental level, change is an impressive idea: it’s fresh and new, it expands horizons, and it allows for innovation and new experiences. In a workplace context, you initiate change so the organization can grow and prosper. 

But the hard truth? Most people hate change. Why? On one hand (at an unconscious level), we don’t like change because it hits a part of our brain that values safety and security. As our cave-ancestors survived and grew as a species, they (like us) were wired to be fearful of change. Engaging in something new could lead to a dangerous situation. 

Now, flash-forward to today: you’re still wired like this in changing situations. When most people engage in change, it leads to an unsettling feeling of vulnerability. On the other hand, your conscious self doesn’t like change because it’s difficult. There’s a tendency to simply accept situations and adjust to them, even if the situations aren’t ideal. 

You might have heard the phrase “the devil you know versus the devil you don’t,” meaning that we tend to be OK with even bad situations, bosses, friends, and relationships because we know where we stand. Too many people dislike change so much that they’d sooner stay in an unpleasant situation because it’s familiar than make a move to something new but unfamiliar. 

So, whether unconscious or conscious, for most people change is hard. It takes courage to try something new and individual resilience to keep at it when it doesn’t work perfectly the first time.

As a leader, courage should be your foundation—the courage to challenge the status quo and to be your authentic and effective self in front of the world. It’s a superpower that every leader has within them; it’s just a matter of avoiding the three courage-inhibitors and then channeling your courage.

Dr. Steve Yacovelli is owner and principal of TopDog Learning Group, LLC, a learning and development, leadership, change management, and diversity and consulting firm based in Orlando, Florida, with affiliates across the globe. With over twenty-five years’ experience, Steve understands the power of using academic theory and applying it to the real world for better results. 

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