I was almost a half-way through a training program on leadership and corporate culture with the executives of a medium-sized software company, when I realized something felt wrong. That feeling became stronger with every team coaching session.
It felt like a well-sponsored football team that is afraid to win. Such team is afraid of itself more than that, anything could change the status quo.
‘The big guys shouldn’t be paying much attention to us’, ‘We have a great product, but nothing to celebrate yet’, ‘It is out of our ‘league’, or similar thoughts were prevalent. ‘We are not ready for big goals yet’ – was the striking statement from a Senior Vice President.
I went for a chat with a CEO, who appeared to be the main source of that fear – ‘we should not take a risk and grow as it goes.’ As a result, a company wasn’t performing to its full capacity. They were even afraid to think about the creation of a strong vision that would drive their company to success. Their growth was limited by a lack of courageous leadership.
Courage to change the game
Ideas that change the world come from bold and brave thinkers. Those visionaries who think outside the comfort zone disrupt the world with creative solutions to problems. Think for a moment, how would you deal with the next brave idea coming from an employee or colleague that may change the status quo and better serve your customers?
Business involves discovery and leaders must be explorers of new and effective business solutions. This requires them to be bolder than their conservative and cautious predecessors. They face new and difficult to predicaments daily. These new problems will require new solutions, solutions that will have to come from adaptable and decisive thinkers.
Courageous thinking is essential for the creation of a strong and vivid vision. Every long, tough, and unknown journey begins with a courageous decision. Vision demands courage as any exploration does. In simple words, courage is a necessary attribute for those striving to create and execute a great vision.
Courage is contagious. The more courage we display in advancing our vision, the more we will inspire others to join us. A leader’s courage encourages engagement from others in the organization.
Fear is also contagious. Fearful leaders cast fear and doubts on their people creating a company that is fearful, rigid, and outdated. Fear and anxiety improve the detection of negative information, impair short-term memory, and harm cognitive function, and impact downstream stages of information processing.
Courage leads to engagement and mutual encouragement. Courageous leadership is important, but the team’s courage is even more important in securing success. A leader can’t move further than the team. The inspired team doesn’t need pushing or pulling but only a nudge in the right direction. The ability to inspire is worth a fortune. A great part of engagement is about challenging people’s inner doubts and helping them out of their mental bubbles. All great leaders exhibit this behavior.
Courage is a skill that can be developed
The truth is that everyone feels fear. Fear gets in the way of making critical decisions by fostering one’s own capacities. This is a normal human reaction.
Winston Churchill once said, “Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision.” Courage is a skill that helps to overcome fear and can be developed. It depends on how we live every day and get ready to respond to something unusual or seemingly beyond our control. As soon as you turn your fear into courage, your knowledge and experience solutions would offer solutions to even the most difficult tasks. It is you who decides whether or not fear controls you.
Ruining a comfortable cocoon of comfort zone thinking is never easy. This cocoon lives on a reflective habit of hiding weaknesses and fears behind any number of excuses – local context and habits, possible negative public opinion, never-done-it-before, and so on. Not to mention a myriad of ‘ifs’, ‘buts’, and ‘howevers’.
It was critical to guide them out of the debris of self-doubt by demonstrating that courage is a skill that can be developed using my own experience. Courage can’t be taught by books but only through real experience and boldly questioning one’s own limits. Here I learned that sharing my own experience is critical for encouraging others.
Leaders need real and transferable experience to be shared with them in order to grow. My personal experience of courageous thinking and acting is something I found critically valuable for coaching leaders by example. People need a coach’s real experience to gain confidence that everything is possible.
I know about courage from my experience fishing in rough seas and facing massive gales on a small trawler. At first, you feel sick during a moderate storm and scared at not having any control over the situation. Then, gradually you adapt and learn how to manage yourself and what best to do in such rough conditions. At a certain point, you enjoy and even look forward to the storm.
Courageous leadership is a skill that can be developed. In order to develop it, I don’t recommend you jump into cold water every day or do something risky. Instead, I would ask you to look at it differently. Courageous leadership is acting and thinking boldly in the face of something unexplored, huge, and complicated. In such cases, one competes not against somebody else but against one’s own fears.
In practical terms, I asked my client to answer five simple questions on a weekly basis, and as often as possible in challenging times:
- What disrupted your thinking and progression with your vision?
- What was your response to this disruption?
- What is the nature of your fears?
- What fear have you managed to fight or seriously reduce its impact over the last week?
- Did you enjoy something that was fearful to you before?
Courageous leadership offers a high return
Three months later I met with the client and asked him three questions – How has courageous thinking changed you as a leader? How difficult was it to break out of comfort zone thinking? How did it influence your people?
The client admitted that the result was unexpectedly great – “Breaking my own boundaries allowed me to make myself much bigger and capable of leading people and myself to success. My team trusts me in projects. They express the highest degree of trust in the sense that together we can achieve anything without doubt.
The feeling of being a strong team is growing. We receive new ideas almost daily now that have resulted in new valuable features in our software. We recently signed a contract which we could only dream about before. We grow from inside. As the leader of this business, I feel positivity, confidence, and people’s craving to explore more. What is most important, we have a vision for ourselves and work on creating our long-term vision now.”
Courageous thinking helps leaders to develop their employees and their business. This is critical for their teams helping people rise and be explorers themselves.
Here are four practical suggestions to consider:
- One can develop courage by asking oneself bold questions and finding answers which lie beyond one’s own fears and usual habits of thinking. Only by challenging yourself can you become a catalyst for change and thrive as a ground-breaking visionary. Lack of courage will eventually lead to a professional and personal crisis.
- We always have time to correct mistakes if we are courageous enough to admit them and have a strong will to change for better.
- There is always a good mentor or coach behind every leader of success who helps to develop his/her capacity. A good mentor or coach helps to attune a courageous thinking which will results in outstanding personal and professional development.
- The desire for mental comfort prevents change and personal and professional growth. Comfort is a swamp that destroys a person’s will. This is a force that is difficult to defeat. It always presents new excuses and reasons why you shouldn’t act on your vision. In practice, many leaders think, ‘I do well enough and don’t need to do better’ without even trying to leave their comfort zone. This leads to short-term thinking and the eventual destruction of whatever they might have accomplished before.