What is Courageous Leadership?

Courageous leadership is built on heroic leadership. A heroic leader is someone who inspires people to aspire to do things and be things greater than themselves. In ancient storytelling, heroes usually possessed a virtue that the author wanted the culture to emulate and begin to reproduce within the body politic. In Greek mythology, primary cultural virtues were temperance, prudence, justice, and ultimately courage, with courage being the virtue that all the other virtues hinged upon. 

A courageous leader is necessary to achieve your organizations mission because the mission has so much meaning. Striving to accomplish something that aims to bring about meaningful change is risky business. The simple truth is that you cannot get involved in risky business if you do not have courage. Nonprofit leaders must be courageous because of the work they do. Courage, a leadership superpower, empowers individuals to persist in leading when faced with adversity. 


The “4-C” Formula to Developing Courageous Leaders

In the modern world, people are experiencing a degree of connectedness that wasn’t a reality even 30 years ago. Our connectedness can create a context where disruption affects people globally even though the disruption started  

somewhere locally, such was the case with COVID-19. When these things occur, a feeling of scarcity sets in; there are not enough resources, time, or manpower to go around. Scarcity demands courageous leaders. Scarcity is to be met with courage, not abundance. To gain that courage, you need curiosity, competence, confidence, and community.  

#1 Curiosity

Nonprofit leaders tend to operate in a space where they feel like there’s not enough time to learn, rather only enough time to act. If you want to be courageous instead of reckless, you must have the curiosity to do the necessary research in making sound decisions, strategic planning, and molding great people. To be courageous, you must have a desire to seek out what you don’t know.  

#2 Competence

Do not be tempted to sacrifice leadership on the altar of charisma. Society may tell us, so long as you are charismatic, you don’t necessarily have to be competent. Competence requires a leader to be adequately trained. 

#3 Confidence

Nonprofit leaders must lead with a level of confidence. They may not have the same amount of confidence all the time, but curiosity plus competence will help a leader to feel confident.  

#4 Community

Many nonprofit (and for-profit) leaders wrestle with loneliness and feelings of alienation. A courageous leader requires the support of a team to take risks so that they feel comfortable failing without being met with dire consequences. Leaders can thrive in an atmosphere where they have the psychological safety of not being 100% sure that something new will work. If a new initiative fails, courageous leaders need to be able to fall back on their community, so they can navigate and learn from the failure without feeling like a failure.  

When you’re leading by yourself, you’re not leading, you’re just taking a walk. Focusing on opportunities to create communities that have courageous leaders in them is important to navigate the obstacles that the future promises to challenge us with.  


Barriers to Courageous Execution

In story theory you have a hero, victim, villain, and a guide. The hero’s nemesis is the villain AND the obstacle they must overcome. However, these two things are not the barriers to courageous action, but rather the reason why the hero needs to act. The obstacle becomes the reason why someone needs to act; the internal barriers are what keeps that person from acting courageously. A feeling of inadequacy, and ultimately imposter syndrome can keep a courageous leader from acting.  

All persons, regardless of race, gender, age, or any other attribute can struggle with feelings of inadequacy. However, the way that someone responds to inadequacy has a lot to do with their level of exposure to the heroes they’ve seen overcome their internal barriers. For example, if society does not celebrate enough women in leadership, then young women in leadership may not respond appropriately when they feel those feelings of inadequacy. When the aggregate leadership community only sees one type of leader overcoming, it can send a message that there is only one type of courageous leader.  


Benefits of Courageous Leadership

It’s contagious. When you see someone else acting courageously and doing it well, it brings something out in others. It gives the ability for someone to inspire another to aspire to do what they’ve never done before. When someone executes with courage in an organization it should be celebrated because it incentivizes others to do the same. Courageous leadership can become a welcome contagion within an entire organization.  


5 Characteristics of Courageous Leaders

A courageous leader is set apart from someone who is operating solely out of charisma. These leaders are set apart because they possess curiosity, competence, confidence, and community, as we discussed earlier. In practice, five distinct characteristics emerge from a courageous leader.   

#1 Doing what is best even when it’s not best for themselves.

A courageous leader consistently makes difficult decisions look easy, especially when their job, reputation, or image may be on the line. Courageous leaders place themselves in their team’s shoes and are disposed to protect and promote their team’s flourishing. They don’t think in a win or lose paradigm. They hold the belief that if the people win, so does the leader.  

#2 Telling hard truths when avoidance seems easier.

Truth that is hard to hear is even harder to tell. There is no way to ease the difficulty of certain truths. If the ship is sinking, or if an employee has done a poor job, too much optimism while giving feedback can come across like naiveté, sarcasm, or people pleasing. There are times when nothing will right the ship like telling hard truths.  

History speaks unfavorably about leaders who are afraid to tell hard truths. Cautious leaders often see their followers as children who can’t handle hard truths. Courageous leaders trust that their team can handle hard truths and flourish because of it. Courageous leaders can tell the difference between what will make people feel better and what will ultimately make them become better.  

#3 “Going on with it” instead of “Getting away with it”.

All leaders have experienced being in a position of “picking and choosing” their battles. Some organizational cultures promote avoiding certain types of conflicts at all costs. Courageous leaders have the wisdom to know what to pursue and what to avoid. They are not, however, afraid of tough or uncomfortable situations and conversations.  

While certain leaders may choose to circumvent conflict because they know they can get away with never addressing it, courageous leaders value the benefits of conflict. Courage calibrates your perception and perspective of risk and rewards. Courageous leaders know that there are situations that demand addressing conflict, deciding to “go on with it” instead of trying to “get away with it.” 

#4 Innovating vs. Escaping

Integrity and courage are mutually inclusive. One cannot be exhibited without the other; it is impossible. There are no short cuts to integrity! Courageous leaders pave new pathways in the face of being tempted with cutting corners. They believe that a step skipped is a lesson unlearned and an opportunity lost. Integrity is essential in creating solutions and processes to problems or barriers. Processes are investments in innovation. When other leaders lean too heavily on assumptions, a courageous leader trusts that their processes have been established with integrity. They pave paths that are eventually called legacy.  

#5 Exhibit authority in vulnerability! (It’s called empathy)

Courageous leaders know the subtle difference between authority and strength. They know that leaders always have authority. Leaders don’t always have strength. Scary leaders often use their authority to hide their weaknesses. Courageous leaders aren’t afraid to show how weakness builds strength. Being vulnerable doesn’t make you a victim. It’s a necessary quality that makes empathy possible. To empathize with others, you must be acquainted with the vulnerability they feel and dare to show it. Courageous leaders aren’t afraid of sharing their failures, and sometimes their fears with others if it is going to strengthen the team. They know that sometimes sharing their weaknesses strengthens others. Courageous leaders share their weaknesses so their team can share in the leader’s strength.  


About the Author

Anthony A Dicks JrAnthony A. Dicks, Jr., Senior Leadership Consultant, 180 Management Group

Anthony is a leader’s leader! His passion for leadership development is seen through his work with emerging nonprofit leaders. He has spent over two decades preparing people with diverse responsibilities to reach their optimal leadership potential. He currently transforms leaders as the Senior Leadership Consultant for 180 Management Group. 



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