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Flexing your leadership courage

Easy bravery tactics for when it’s hard to do something new.

February 12, 2020
By Dr. Steve Yacovelli


Remember in The Wizard of Oz how the Cowardly Lion — when he got to see the Wizard — was like, “What? I already had courage?” It was not cool that the Wizard made the poor guy go all the way through that drama, only to say, “That gift you want? You already got it!” Well, leadership courage is a lot like that. Often when leaders ask, “How can I get more courageous in my leadership?” the answer is, you already got this; just tap into that which you already have.

At its core, it’s easiest to think of courage as that adrenaline-filled action hero that you see in the movies or when you’re home Netflixing and chillin’. Amazon warriors like Wonder Woman, death-facing young wizards like Harry Potter, countless soldiers and sailors entering the massive battle to win the war: you see these images in media and get an idea of what “courage” is supposed to be. But if you’re not a Navy SEAL or a wand-wielding wizard,you’re in luck! By nature of being in a leadership role within your organization, there’s a strong argument that you already have some semblance of courage up your sleeve. The challenge is to build and harness that courage to be even more effective as a leader.

When you think about being courageous in the workplace, even if you’re being your bravest self, there’s still a lot of factors that can prevent you from being your most courageous, effective leadership self. Time and again, these are the top three “courage-inhibitors” that tend to come up for many leaders:

1. The Challenge of Fear
If you were to ask around, you’d likely find that a lack of courage and abundance of complacency in the workplace comes down to one simple thing: fear. When you think about this, it can be broken down into two subtypes: (A) Fear of (Perceived or Actual) Failure, and (B) Fear of Feeling Like an Outsider. With Fear “A,” you tend to strive for perfectionism, where the idea of submitting anything less than perfect could alter the opinion of a boss or trusted ally. Typically, most folks want their best foot forward; they want to be seen as a rock star performer. Anything less is deemed a failure.


But Fear “B” 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 before (or maybe you currently do). This desire to avoid the feeling of being the “other” leads you to be compliant, even if in your core you know the idea at hand really needs to be challenged for the good of the organization. Having leadership courage here is to be OK with failing, being OK with being perceived as that outsider for the sake of doing better work, benefiting your team members or moving your organization forward.

2. The Challenge of Assumptions
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 humans are wired. When you think of this in the context of courage, you’re either avoiding truly understanding the situation, or you’re scared to dive deeper into the truth of the situation. Having leadership courage means lifting up those rocks and seeing what’s underneath. Lack of courage means making assumptions about the situation without knowing all the information.

3. The Challenge of Being Locked into Current Behaviors
Here’s a little secret you probably already know: most people don’t like change. On a fundamental level, change is an awesome idea: it expands horizons, it allows for innovation and to have new experiences. In the workplace context, you initiate change so that the organization can grow and prosper. But the hard truth is that the vast majority of people hate change. Why? At the unconscious level, humans don’t like to change because it hits a part of our brain that likes safety and security. As our cave-ancestors survived and grew as a species, they 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. Your conscious self doesn’t like change because it’s difficult. There’s a tendency to simply get used to situations, know how to act and adjust to them, even if the situation isn’t ideal. As humans we tend to be OK with bad situations/bosses/friends/relationships, because we know where we stand in this context. Some people don’t like change so much that they’d sooner stay in a bad situation because it’s familiar rather than make a move to newness. So, whether unconcious or conscious, for most people change is hard! It takes courage to try something new, something different, and individual resilience to keep at it when it doesn’t work perfectly the first time.

As a leader, courage should be the bedrock that’s 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 super power that every leader has within them: it’s just a matter of avoiding the three “courage-inhibitors” and channeling that courage just like the not-so-Cowardly Lion did.

Dr. Steve Yacovelli (“The Gay Leadership Dude”) is Owner & Principal of TopDog Learning Group, LLC, a learning and development, leadership, change management, and diversity and consulting firm based in Orlando, FL, USA, with affiliates across the globe. With over twenty-five years’ experience, Steve is a rare breed that understands the power of using academic theory and applying it to the “real” world for better results. His latest book, Pride Leadership: Strategies for the LGBTQ+ Leader to be the King or Queen of their Jungle came out June 2019.