Perhaps the most important characteristic necessary to lead transformational change is courage. Without exception, each of the Evolutionary change agents we studied for our book Evolutionaries: Transformational Leadership demonstrated great acts of courage during their careers. It’s easy to say, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” but it can be difficult to differentiate between courage and just plain crazy! Yet, that’s just what you will need to do if you want to reach your fullest potential and successfully lead transformational change.
What is Courage?
Courage is the emotional strength to advocate for right, withstand threats, persevere through fear, take personal risks or face danger for other people or valued principles. The word “courage” comes from the Latin meaning “heart.” Evolutionary Leaders are always driven by a cause that is larger than the individual – fueled by a passion to make things better and leave a legacy for others. It makes sense that our heart is so connected to our ability to be courageous. When you know and believe in your purpose, you can be brave. People think that the opposite of courage is fear, but it’s not. The opposite of courage is indifference. When you know why your work matters – when you’ve fallen in love with your job – that passion is what makes you stronger, more resilient, and more willing to taking risks.
Leading With Courage
Transformational leaders are masters at garnering followers. A few years ago I attended a huge employee conference held by Microsoft. There were probably 16,000 people in the audience. Using electronic audience voting technology, one speaker asked participants to rate what was most important to them in a leader. They were given traits like “vision”, “humor”, “intelligence”, “experience”, etc. But over 60% (the vast majority) of the audience voted “courage” as the number one trait a follower wants in a leader. Courage is what allows us to speak the unspeakable, to take on new challenges, lead our competitors, and win. At the end of the day, our followers want to trust that we will make the right decisions and do the right thing, even when it’s difficult. Transformational leaders use courage every day, in their actions and in their words. They coach with courage: accepting the responsibility for the performance of other people, pushing people beyond their natural boundaries, taking chances on people, trusting a team, and making unpopular and difficult decisions when necessary. Transformational leaders are constantly “making bets” on other people to pursue excellence, perform admirably, and achieve audacious goals. They believe deeply in the people around them and the untapped performance capacity of their followers. For this reason, transformational leadership can result in exceptional rewards – but just as often, it can bring exceptional pain. The best transformational leaders are those who are willing to invest enough of themselves in their purpose and the people they lead that they risk incredible heartbreak.
Transformational Leadership Training
If you are starting to worry that maybe you don’t have the courage you need in order to be an Evolutionary or lead transformational change, we have great news for you – courage is something that can be learned. Some of us may have started a little earlier than others – maybe we were encouraged to challenge and debate with our parents around the dinner table, or maybe we went abroad to study and explore a foreign culture and language when we were in high school or college… The point is that courage is something we get better at with experience and practice. Courageous people are really just prepared people. Michael Jordan made a million jump shots in empty gyms before demanding the ball with the game on the line in front of 20,000 fans. A great public speaker may have talent—but there is also a good chance that they have simply taken the time to prepare and rehearse again and again over several years.
Like most things of value in life, there is no quick fix. But there are a few things you can start doing today to build your courage muscle:
- Get coached. Look for people who always seem to do the right thing, even when it’s hard. Are there transformational leaders in your life that you admire? Ask them to mentor you in the area of courage. Be sure to tell them what sort of coaching you are looking for – are you really seeking advice? Or, are you seeking confirmation and justification for actions you already know you need to be taking? Your self-awareness will allow you to “crack the code” and discover how your mentor can effectively bring out the best in you.
- Practice! When you are motivated and prepared, you can do things that other people would see as courageous—or even crazy. Mark Marks is a marine biologist who has logged more hours than anyone else in the world free swimming with great white sharks. That’s right, no cages, no protective gear. As crazy as that sounds, for Marks, the risks are very manageable given his commitment to learn about the social behavior of great whites—and frankly to save the species and the world’s ocean eco-systems. Marks has spent thousands of hours studying and preparing for his dives. So what seems like uber-courage to us is just another day at the office for him. The lesson, of course, is that passion, hard work, research and preparation are what really drive courage.
- Test. Start testing your courage – do something each week that’s brave. Maybe it’s signing up for classes to learn to play an instrument. Maybe it’s volunteering to lead the next meeting or do a presentation. Maybe it’s inviting that rival at work out to lunch and talking openly about your issues. Start small, observe and reflect on the outcomes, and then raise the challenge for next time. Like riding a bike, the only way to become more courageous is to engage in acts of courage. With time, what seems impossible today, will be a breeze in the future. We promise!