Scott was preparing for his weekly staff meeting and knew that the discussion had the potential to be contentious. Over the last three weeks, the company had begun shifting its priorities in response to competitive and customer changes. It meant deciding whether or not to set aside months of hard, high-quality work that his team had been doing.
The team was emotionally invested in their work and had put in long hours. Scott recognized that they would feel a sense of loss and frustration as a result of a change in direction. He also knew that his team’s future contributions would be essential to move the company in its new direction.
During the staff meeting, he would need to navigate the team’s emotions and share the path ahead even though it would be challenging. Scott had been through changes like this one before and knew that his message to his team could make the difference between engagement and disillusionment. Could he keep them committed and excited about the future?
Scott’s situation is a familiar one to many leaders. How willing are you to communicate an unpopular message at work if it is the right thing to do for the health of the business? Do you seek out perspectives and experiences that are different from your own to inform your decision making? Are you as willing to receive feedback as you are to give it? If so, you might be a courageous leader.
There are many attributes that a courageous leader demonstrates, and many of them are rooted in a willingness to be vulnerable, authentic and employ a learning and curious mindset. Like many traits, courageous leadership happens across a spectrum. Someone with less bravery might see something requiring courage as a risk rather than an opportunity to support others through a challenging situation. And while courageous leadership can be learned and practiced, it is not the sole domain of people with decades of career experience or notable degrees. Courageous leadership requires a depth of experience and exposure to challenges that require emotional and social awareness.
In my work with clients, we work through several areas to develop courageous leadership:
1. Self-awareness: Starting with reflection and building awareness of a leader’s own tendencies is essential because it helps leaders know their own starting point for values, priorities, learning style and challenging conversations. One key characteristic of a courageous leader is an ability to learn from experience, cultivating an awareness of how the past can influence current behavior.
2. Feedback: Courageous leaders are skilled in asking for feedback. They let other people know they want to improve. Courageous leaders know that it is important to address issues head-on rather than let them perpetuate or build into something else. They are willing to put themselves in a potentially uncomfortable situation, without sacrificing relationships.
3. Vulnerability: Leaders who recognize and express their own emotions in a healthy way create an environment in which others can also be authentic and take appropriate risks. As Dr. Brené Brown so eloquently states, there simply is no courage without the presence of vulnerability.
As my clients work to build their skills in these areas, we develop opportunities for them to practice courageous leadership skills in relatively safe settings at first -- controlled experiments to see how the scenarios play out in reality and then use those experiences as the basis for new approaches to work and life. One of the most important of these skills as leaders are starting down the path of courageous leadership is the ability to pause and reflect. During the pause, leaders have time to be intentional about how they want to lead. It has proven to be instrumental in managing their own stress and helps them resist falling into past patterns of behavior.
Which of these three areas can you focus on to become a more courageous leader?
*This article first appeared on Forbes.