Courageous Leadership

A superpower worth developing

jackie freiberg

“Courageous leaders are tough minded on standards and tender hearted with people.”

Look around, most people are in need of a little extra TLC these days. Many of us are navigating the ongoing uncertainty with an invisible “Awkward,” Handle with Care” or “Fragile” sign slipped around our neck.  The world is still recovering from unprecedented times. And not so long ago, we were told to stay home. Now we’re being invited, pleaded with and even bribed, to come back.

In looking ahead, although there is no clear path forward your superpower for navigating the ongoing uncertainty ahead is courage.

Churchill said it in 1931,

“We are judged in the testing moments of our lives. Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities, because, as has been said, it is the quality which guarantees all others.”

Remember… in uncertainty and change, we all have a choice. We can hunker down, take orders and wait it out, or we can embrace the suck, be courageous, pivot and do our part in rising strong.

If you are interested in growing courage as a superpower and you want to rise strong, here are four strategies for becoming more courageous at work and in life.

Bottom line, the world is calling for more courageous souls who are willing to embrace risk, solicit feedback, model accountability, show empathy and lead change.

Here’s the good news. Becoming a courageous leader is doable. It requires mastering four skills:

  1. Rumbling with risk
  2. Living your values
  3. Growing trust
  4. Rising strong together

1. Rumbling with risk

Courage is the birthplace of all things that seem hard… innovation, creativity, empathy, trust and change, just to name a few. Courage calls us to embrace risk, uncertainty and exposure (whether that exposure is intellectual, emotional or even physical). Rumbling with risk is about exercising our courage muscles to individually and collectively tackle difficult issues, do hard things and solve problems that matter. It’s about leaning into (not avoiding) what’s tabooed, held at bay, ignored, put on hold and feared.

There is NO courage without vulnerability. Courage and vulnerability are two sides of the same coin. Consider tossing a nickel in the air. It may land of heads or tails, regardless it is still a nickel. The same is true for courage and vulnerability. You cannot be courageous without being vulnerable and you cannot be vulnerable without being courageous.

Most failure in leadership is a failure of nerve — a lack of courage.

Courage-building is a journey that teaches you to choose courage over comfort. It is a learned practice of discomfort and involves embracing the suck by rumbling with risk, uncertainty and exposure instead of running from it or holding it a bay. Courage is about noticing. Noticing the problems, the uncertainties, the possibilities and then asking,

“How can I show up to serve people, serve the project and/or serve this problem (change, challenge)?”

Courage empowers us to be accountable and to hold others accountable for what matters. It empowers us to engage in tough, truthful and kind conversations. Courage calls us to share feedback as a gift, not a weapon. Courage invites us to push back respectfully or even disagree to achieve better. When practiced effectively, the creative rumble of an honest give and take leads to better solutions faster.

What should you do? 

First, understand how you typically respond to uncertainty and risk. Do you flee, freeze, fawn or fight? Identify a difficult issue you have been avoiding. Consider it your call to courage. This is your chance to modify the playbook and write a new chapter with courage as your superpower. Think back to a time when you lacked the nerve to do what was right. Use courage to embolden you. Dare to rumble with the uncertainty, assess your options, check your fear against reality and then daringly do what needs to be done, even if it is uncomfortable. Remember, courage is a learned practice of discomfort.

2. Live your values

Would you rather be comfortable living in a lie or uncomfortable living in your truth? Values give us the courage to live more consistently in our truth.

Courage means we don’t just profess values; we practice them. We know our values, they are crystal clear and we live them, even when it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable. Brave people aren’t silent or passive. They do not willfully turn a blind eye to issues that challenge their values. When there is a disconnect between the values we espouse and the values we practice, our integrity tanks, hypocrisy surges and cowardice prevails.

Most companies have values, yet only about 10% of them have operationalized their values into teachable and measurable behaviors. Values will only become practical (lived out loud) when operationalized into practices and behaviors that serve as accountability measures. When values become measurable, they create guides for our actions and serve as boundaries for making better decisions.

What should you do?

What do you value most in life? This is not a rhetorical question, it’s deep and difficult and worthy of an answer.

Whether you’re a business leader or an individual on a journey of personal development, ask, “What are my top two values (avoid more than 4)?” Or ask, “What are the top guiding principles I want to guide my actions, choices and decisions?”

And then ask, “Have I/we done the hard work of defining what these values look like when lived out loud? What 2-3 behaviors demonstrate each value?”

Accountability requires clarity, and it takes courage to consistently live true to our values.

3. Grow trust

It is all too common during times of uncertainty and change to demand trust from others by issuing statements such as “Trust me on this!” But trust cannot be summoned with a command and you cannot legislate trust. Trust must be earned—incrementally, over time by small and consistent gestures of genuine interest, concern and care.

Trust is not soft, nor is it a “nice to have” competency. Trust is essential to courageous leadership and living well. Trust is fundamental to healthy connection, engaged teams and high performing workplaces. Trust is the one thing that influences everything—it is the basis for connection, collaboration and contribution.

When trust is high, we hold each other accountable by drawing the best out of one another, not by punishing, blaming or shaming each other. Bottom line, trust makes it safe for us to connect deeply, improve our impact, challenge the status quo, rumble with risk, grow stronger and create improvements.

To create deeper connections and more engaged, high performing teams trust is a requirement. Consider a marble jar as a useful metaphor for building trust. Every small gesture of care and interest earns you a marble of trust in the relationship. But be warned. Any time someone undercuts, shames, bullies, betrays or dismisses a colleague, friend or family member, it bruises, even blows trust; in those cases, it’s not just one marble lost–it’s a handful.

Deep and meaningful relationships, as well as high performing teams, are grounded and guided by courageous people. And courageous people live their values, align around a clear vision and work together to build a strong foundation for growing trust.

What should you do?

Ask the people you live and work with, “What are your marbles? What builds trust for you and what blows trust for you?” Then ask yourself, “How full is our marble/trust jar?”

You can also ask, “What gestures of care, celebration, connection and/or support are important to you?” Having this conversation is an expression of empathy and care. And doing so regularly, will help you avoid behaviors that tend to blow trust.

4. Rise strong together

Have you ever encountered a toxic person or a verbal bully in the workplace? It’s surprising how often people turn a blind eye to these behaviors and allow the toxic behavior to dominate the conversation or take over the meeting. It’s interesting how our personal choices can become team or family norms.

Why? Because fear and turning a blind eye is contagious. No one wants to be the one to call someone out. Calling behaviors out is risky, so it’s easier and perhaps even safer to ignore it. Recently this happened to one of us during a meeting. A woman was confrontational, aggressive and dismissive by noting she violently disagreed with a comment. Other people in the meeting shut down, but she did not, she continued to dominate and bulldoze the conversation. Her behavior stalled progress and demoralized team chemistry.

If fear is contagious, courage is contagious as well. Courage calls people to choose courage over comfort by calmly and respectfully letting a verbal bully know the negative impact of their tone, words and style. We handled it and called her behavior out, “Sandra, help me understand why you ‘violently disagree with me.’ I’m not sure what you disagree with, and your tone and word choice shut the team down and stalled our progress.” Was it easy to redirect the conversation? Heck No!  It was uncomfortable and uncertain. Yet, in the end, Sandra admitted she was unaware of the negative impact of her language and tone, she even admitted ‘violently agreeing and violently disagreeing’ had become normalized responses for her. She committed to changing. Courage paved the way for advancing with greater awareness and civility. And courage allowed us to rise strong together and create more productive group norms.

No question, it’s risky to engage in difficult conversations and it’s uncomfortable to speak the truth and call out a bully, a lie or a problem. It is a choice—comfort or courage?

When we dare to rise strong, others join and together we can embrace the suck and take on the difficult. Courage is about leaning into vulnerability by demonstrating it first and setting a new standard. When you choose courage you are called to drop your guard and ditch your armor. When you dare to try your example encourages others to ditch and drop too. You create the freedom and make it safe to rise strong together. When enough people do this, a courageous culture develops.

Courage is a personal and collective superpower. Why? Because it’s rare and hard to emulate. Self-help books, products, services and business models are relatively easy to replicate. But cracking the code to courage is far more difficult. However, when courage becomes the benchmark, the expectation, you create a serious competitive advantage to your personal and professional brand.


Courage is a gift not a weapon!  Equip yourself and others with courage skills training that will accelerate accountability and increase performance. We offer company workshops and one-on-one coaching. Courage building is a journey, and you cannot do courage without being vulnerable. Courage is about daring to step into uncertainty, risk and expose of some kind, and that will inevitably make you feel vulnerable. And the truth is, the myths of vulnerability tend to outweigh the benefits of vulnerability. So, again be warned, vulnerability is riddled with predispositions; it is not okay to start requiring people to be vulnerable to fit into your team, company culture or to hang with you.

Courage (vulnerability) has become the skill d’jour and sadly people are misusing it. Unfortunately, we have witnessed relationships and workplaces where people have tried to mandate vulnerability. It’s been used as tool for rude and unkind truth telling. People were expected to step into the arena and expose their kryptonite—their flaws and inadequacies to peers.

Courage and vulnerability were used as justifications to call people out publicly. And instead of rising strong, people felt shamed and embarrassed; careers stalled, risk-taking, trust and engagement tanked while politicking, fawning and judgment peaked. This misuse of courage and vulnerability is why it’s best to work with a certified facilitator to lead you and/or your team’s discussions and development.

Courage is a virtue, a superpower for doing good. Courage should be used in kindness to draw the BEST of out yourself and others.

In rising strong together, “together” is the operative word. It’s about creating a culture where people take risks, rumble with uncertainty and embrace the suck together. Volumes have been written about the preconditions for growth, managing change and rising out of crisis. One of those preconditions is courage—a will, a choice to rumble with risk, live our values out loud, do the hard work of building trust and rise strong together to accomplish extraordinary things.

If you want to accomplish the difficult and do the extraordinary, then an essential superpower you should develop in yourself and model for others is to rise strong by growing your courage skills individually and together.