The call for courage … now

(~ 5minute read.)

The 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) brought devastating impact to the world economy.  In 2020, the COVID-19 coronavirus disease is devastating both economies and communities around the world.

As a result of the GFC, people looked to their leaders — world leaders, business leaders, community leaders, family leaders — for guidance and reassurance.  It’s no different today.

There are many articles offering recommended strategies for leaders to lead and manage through this crisis. A Google search for “leading through corona” returned 172 million results in 0.31 seconds. A search of “leading through covid” returned 860 million results in less time.  No doubt, there is cross-over between these two searches. A search of “corona, covid, leader, courage” returned 1.3 million results.  You can see where I’m going with this.

Included in the search results were the following articles:

What do these articles have in common? They have all identified the need for courage in our leaders.


The article by Sneader and Shubham of McKinsey & Company focuses on seven elements that will shape the next normal:

  1. Distance is back
  2. Resiliency in all its manifestations – production, supply chain, business structure and people
  3. The rise of the contact-free economy
  4. More government intervention in the economy
  5. More scrutiny of how businesses will value their employees, shareholders, customers and society
  6. How businesses will respond to changing industry structures, consumer behaviour, market positions and sector attractiveness
  7. And, while these may appear insignificant compared to the devastation of coronavirus, finding the silver linings

These seven elements will influence the countless decisions that will be made by many; hence, they posit that the new normal will be a choice, concluding that “Optimism and courage … are needed more than ever as leaders make the decisions that will shape the next normal.”

What do these articles have in common? They have all identified the need for courage in our leaders.

The Korn Ferry guide offers a wealth of knowledge and expertise in leading in a crisis, reducing costs, virtual learning, hiring talent, engaging and enabling people through change, and more.

In this guide, Kevin Cashman and Jane Stevenson offer eight steps that leaders can take now; these are:

  1. Be purposeful – remind people of the “why” of your organisation and how it can impact meaningfully now
  2. Be empathetic – show that you care; show that you care; show that you care; repeat
  3. Be calm, clear and confident – communicate
  4. Be both action-oriented and reflective – pause and act
  5. Be inspiring – share stories of your organisation’s purpose and values in action
  6. Be resilient – lead by example, take care of your energy; encourage others to do the same
  7. Be aware of mindsets – move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset
  8. Be courageous – make the tough decisions; pay attention to fear-based decisions; inspire others with your courage

Kevin Cashman concludes with, “Are CEOs courageous enough to deal with the immediate problems but also courageous enough to do the things that will connect the organisation to the future? And that, during a crisis, is one hell of a challenge.”

In his article for Forbes, Glenn Llopis recognises that leaders – whether a leader by title or a leader through influence – become the face of courage for many people because of their authenticity, relatedness and empathy.  He calls for the age of personalisation not standardisation, and in this age of personalisation, he identifies that leaders need to be courageous.

They need to be courageous to be compassionate; to allow others to influence; to listen through actions; and to set aside metrics that may now be irrelevant.

“Optimism and courage … are needed more than ever as leaders make the decisions that will shape the next normal.” (Sneader & Singhal)

What we know – A definition of courage:

Based on the literature, our own experience in workplaces, and our desire to make courage more tangible and pragmatic for workplaces, we have defined courage as “an intentional constructive or moral action taken by an individual in the presence of perceived personal risk and uncertainty of outcome (personal or organisational) in order to resolve or avert a workplace issue”.

 What we know – Strategies and skills to build courage:

With no disrespect to any of the aforementioned authors, it’s easy to say, “our leaders must be courageous”. It’s harder to put this into action, but we know how.  We know how to build and to strengthen courageous leaders.

Reflection and planning.  A key word in the above definition of workplace courage is intentional which requires reflection and planning; Cashman mentions pausing before action.  This reflection and planning is designed to guide you to critically assess your goals to ensure that these are not harmful to you or others.  This will also help you manage potential fear and assess the degree of associated risk before embarking on the courageous action.

When reflecting, you are invited to consider the following three questions:

  1. To what extent is this action worthwhile?
  2. To what extent is this action risky?
  3. To what extent are you willing to take this action? (Pozzo & Kern)

This pause will help you decide on the best course of action to take, and will help you to stay in courage rather than potentially tip into recklessness or cowardice.


Further reflection: My Courageous Self. Sneader and Singhal suggest “to consider lessons  of the past … and on that basis, to think constructively about the future.”  We know that we are inspired to courage by reflecting on our own courageous acts of the past.  Based on neuroscience, we also know that our brain collects evidence about our experiences and stores this information to be accessed and used for future experiences.  Based on this knowledge, we have developed an appreciative reflection exercise designed to explore a past courageous act so that you may be inspired to future courageous actions.  This reflection exercise can be found here.

Four key skills. Dr Brené Brown has identified four teachable, observable and measurable skills for building courage. A very brief summary of each of these skills follows:

  1. Rumbling with vulnerability: Vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage; without vulnerability there is no courage.Simply, vulnerability is the emotion we feel during times of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.  Vulnerability is the willingness to show up and be seen with no guarantee of outcome.
  2. Living into your values: A value is a way of being or believing that we hold most important.Living our values means we don’t just profess them, we live them;  we walk our talk.  We care that our words, behaviors and thoughts align with our values.
  3. BRAVING trust: Trust is such an inspiring characteristic and also, somewhat mysterious.Brené’s work has made trust accessible and pragmatic.  Her research has identified 7 key elements of trust, resulting in the acronym BRAVING which stands for boundaries, reliability, accountability, (the) vault, integrity, non-judgement, generosity.
  4. Learning to rise: This is the ability to get up after falling.It is about teaching resilience before the fall. Research shows that leaders who build resilience as part of their development are more likely to engage in courageous behaviour because they know how to get back up should they fall.

We have needed courage in the past.  We need courage today.  No doubt we will continue to need courage in future. 

Has anything changed?

When I completed my Master of Applied Positive Psychology at The University of Melbourne, the topic of my capstone was “Leading with Courage in a VUCA World” (where VUCA is the acronym for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous).  At that time, renowned leadership Professor Warren Bennis espoused that “courage is the ‘X’ factor that can make or break corporate America;” leadership educator and executive coach John Baldoni  recommended that moral courage be a part of all leadership development programs; and Professor Fred Jablin called for courage to be taken from being a “soft” concept to one that is robust and operationalised.

We have needed courage in the past.  We need courage today.  No doubt we will continue to need courage in future.  Courage is no longer a soft concept—it is a teachable, observable and measurable skill.  Insium has the knowledge and expertise to help you to build your own courageous leaders for the VUCA world in which we find ourselves.  What are you waiting for?



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