A Little Secret About Courage

Courage is a favorite topic when experts write about leadership. Often the kind of courage they write about is the big, bold stuff of legends: climbing Mount Everest and leading the team down safely in intrepid weather; safely landing a plane on the Hudson River; turning a company around against long odds.

I can`t deny that this kind of courage inspires me. However, there is another kind that inspires even more. It`s behind the scenes ?€“ and we tend to miss it. It doesn`t get headlines. It is not considered big, bold, or legendary. But yet it is HUGE in terms of transforming your leadership.

Before I describe this kind of courage, let`s consider that the word “courage” comes from the French word for “heart”. This kind of quiet, invisible courage is the kind that I am blessed to observe in the best leaders through the work we do, and it comes from the heart. And not coincidentally, it is this type of courage that encourages a leader to create and sustain the relationships required to do the big, bold stuff of legends.

What is this type of courage?

So what is this “type of courage”? Are you ready? The quiet, hidden courage that I am speaking of is the courage to look at oneself and make the changes necessary to be a legendary leader. Seems kind of anti-climactic compared to landing a plane on the Hudson.

But yet ?€“ I know leaders (and you do too) who are in self-denial about their bad or mediocre behavior. Or others who are unwilling to take a look at themselves through reflection, assessments or feedback from others.

Courage to look at yourself sustains you for the big stuff

Choosing the path of leadership is a personal (as well as professional) journey. It requires a great deal of toughness, persistence, and heart to make it work. It is a never ending path that takes ongoing learning, including some of the hardest lessons imaginable; sometimes against all odds. The best leaders know themselves well, and this knowing gets them through the tough times.

I`ll bet that Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, the courageous pilot who landed the plane on the Hudson, has done the courageous work of introspection. I`d wager a bet that he`s had the courage to look at and understand his strengths and gaps. I`m willing to bet that knowing those strengths and gaps were instrumental in his ability to stay calm and to save many lives.

So choose the leadership path with care. It isn`t easy. In order to be great at it, you must look inside and do the inner work required. And this requires great courage (the quiet kind).

I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

6 comments on “A Little Secret About Courage

  1. A true leader leads by example. Having the courage to change yourself before asking for change in others is monumental. Don’t be afraid to ask colleagues and staff what you need to work on to be more effective. Learn from them just as you hope they learn from you.

  2. I like to say that there are only two things that you need to be a leader: followers and the willingness to lead. However, I think in order to be an extraordinary it absolutely takes the courage you are talking about. Being willing to lead and having the courage to constantly look at ourselves and make the changes we need to make are two very different things.

  3. Mary Jo, I especially like the description of the “never ending path that takes ongoing learning.” Personally, I have to continually look inward and evaluate my strengths and shortcomings. I think the giant step is for leaders to admit WE ALL have shortcomings. Great post!


  4. Courage of course is born at the heart. You reminded me of another great post by Randy Hall on the subject of Self Leadership. He called it the hardest kind and it really is. Not because it will impress anybody while you are doing it, but because it sets the stage for you to lose fear of being great, taking on lofty goals and figuring out exactly where you might want to lead others. Thanks for the reflection, Mary Jo…we all need a nudge in this direction now and then.

  5. Christopher, how true. Thanks.

    Tom, its amazing how hard “looking at oneself” can be – and how powerful. Thanks.

    Kevin, there should be a 12-step program for accepting our weaknesses and embracing our strengths! One of the things a coach can do is help a leader to put some structure around getting feedback, reflecting on it, and taking action because of it. Thanks!

    Monica, you are a wise voice. Thanks for the additional reflection!

  6. Hi MJ,

    First time to your blog. A little late in finding this gem of an article. Thanks.

    The introspection you described is an integral part in pilot training. The strengths and gaps in a commercial pilot`s skill are rigorously tested in simulator rides. These rides, administered on a regular basis, simulate the harshest situations and give the hardest lessons imaginable. To keep a pilot`s license, any gaps found in his/her skill must be filled. This is a never ending process that lasts throughout the pilot`s career.

    Knowing there is no gaps in his skill certainly helped Mr. Sullenberger to stay calm, but the same can be said to all commerical pilots.

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