Courage to Lead: Re-looking the Role of Courage in Leadership

It takes courage to lead, but not in the way many people seem to think.  Certainly, we need courage to step forward and show the way, but if we want our teammates to be motivated, engaged, and productive as they follow, there’s something else we have to do with that courage.  


Courage to Lead - Re-Looking the Role of Courage in Leadership

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The Image is Wrong

What’s your mental image of a leader? 

Courage to Lead - A Common Leadership ImageI just did a quick internet image search of “Leader.”  The results page was full of depictions like this one:  a stalwart figure, often in caricature, standing boldly at the head of a group of followers.  In others, the leader points while issuing orders, leads a line of followers like so many ducks in a row, or stands on a pedestal at the center of a circle of the faithful.

Very often the leader’s image was highlighted in red, while the followers blended into a gray faceless mass.  All that was missing to complete the image of super-hero was a flowing cape.

In our own efforts to lead, many assume that we have to live up to images like these to some degree.  We must be the very picture of confidence, determination, courage. 

But our image of “leader” clashes with the reality of leadership.  When people struggle with leadership issues, this is where I think the problem sometimes lies.  Here’s what I mean.

It’s About Courage

We envision the leader as courageous, and no doubt it takes courage to lead.  Merriam-Webster tells us that courage is “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.”  Certainly, those are qualities we hope to see in our leaders. 

The Latin origin of the word is “cor,” meaning heart, which adds dimension to this idea.  As leaders, our heart is in it, we are committed, invested, and fully engaged in the task at hand. 

All this is good, but if we hope to lead effectively, it’s only part of the equation.   We can be courageous until we exhaust ourselves, but that doesn’t make us good leaders.

The key is this:  it’s not just how much courage we have, but how much of it our teammates have.   If we want them to put their hearts into the work, to be inspired, engaged, and focused, we have to do the kinds of things that make that possible.  It means passing that courage on to our teammates.

If we hope to lead, it’s the courage we pass on to others that counts. Click To Tweet

To do that we need to add an “En-“ to make the word encourage:   “To inspire with courage, spirit or hope; hearten.”

The interesting thing about ENcouraging others is that it mostly does not require us to pose bravely on a pedestal, face down impossible odds, or issue faultless orders to be immediately obeyed.  To have the courage to lead means to give it away.  Here are some ideas.

To ENcourage:

Listen.  Attention is a limited currency.  When we give it to our teammates, they know we respect them and what they have to contribute.  When they know we are listening, it ENcourages our teammates to think and contribute.

Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen. – Winston Churchill Click To Tweet

Add autonomy.  In his book, Drive, Author Daniel Pink lists autonomy as one of the most important components of motivation.  As leaders, our tendency is to want to take control of things, but good leaders ENcourage by giving as much control to their teammates as possible.

Engage.  Open and continuous communication is key to leadership.  If we want our teammates to be engaged, it helps if we start by engaging with them.  As Wally Bock likes to say, have lots of conversations.   Some can be about work, many should be about other things.  When we engage personally with our teammates, we ENcourage better connections and greater commitment.

Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care. – Theodore Roosevelt Click To Tweet

Team-build.  Isolation can lead to frustration; people tend to work better when they have a sense of “we’re in this together.”  We are ENcouraged when we know others have our back.  One way to build tighter bonds across the team is to develop team rituals that strengthen the connections among the members.  To get started, consider Team Rituals:  35 Pretty Good Ideas to Strengthen Your Culture.

Support honest mistakes.  Growth comes when people extend themselves outside their comfort zone, but stepping into the uncomfortable also entails increased risk of a misstep.  If we want to ENcourage our teammates to try something new, they have to know they won’t be skewered for making an honest mistake when they do.  When something goes wrong, help extract the lessons-learned in a positive way, and encourage them to try again.

Appreciate consistent efforts.  It’s easy to overlook the important but unspectacular, things like showing up on time, following through on promises, or doing dependable, quality work.  Often, we only realize how important these things are when we don’t have them.  We can ENcourage our teammates simply by acknowledging their undramatic yet vital daily consistency.  Take a minute to say “Thanks!”

Water the plants you want to grow. – Stephen Covey Click To Tweet

Point out the positive.  If all we focus on and talk about are what people are doing wrong, we might be supervising, but we aren’t leading.  It’s the difference between telling people where not to go, versus helping them see the path we want them to follow.  So instead of fault-finding, try to catch them doing something right.  When we point out the positive, we ENcourage our teammates to do more of the same.  

Express trust.  Leadership relies on trust, and the place it starts is with the leader.  In voicing and demonstrating our trust in others, we ENcourage them to live up to those expectations, and performance improves.

Provide purpose.  People will work to pay the bills, but if we hope to build commitment and engagement, it helps if they feel that what they do matters in the grand scheme of things.  When we share specific examples of how the team’s work benefits a person or a cause, our teammates are ENcouraged to become even more invested.

Advocate for them.  People are ENcouraged when they know that their leader is fighting for them.  Whether it is praising their good work to the big boss, helping advance their career, or simply taking real action on concerns they voice, our teammates are ENcouraged when they know we will act on their behalf.

Courage to Lead – The Takeaway

No doubt it takes courage to lead.  Having the courage to set a positive personal example for others is a great place to start.  But the most effective leaders are those who also pass that courage along to their teammates.

The truly courageous leader is the one who gives his teammates the confidence to be courageous themselves. Click To Tweet

Most of the time, the way they do that doesn’t involve standing on pedestals singlehandedly facing great odds as others look on.

A better image of the leader is that of one who ENcourages others.  The emphasis isn’t on the leader but on those he leads.  They shouldn’t be a faceless gray mass in the background of his hero image.   They should be foremost, in full color and detail, while the leader stands confidently in the background. 

Courage to Lead - They Should All be Heros

After all, which is the stronger team – the one that has only a single hero, or the one where they all are?  Let them wear the capes, while we stand back and smile.

Leaders with the courage to lead ENcourage.

Lead On!


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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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