Courageous Leadership

by Hien DeYoung

Margie Warrell of Korn Ferry defines courageous leadership as, “leadership that involves fighting through your natural responses in those moments, which will ultimately hold you back.” Is it the moments that hold us back? Or is it our natural responses to those moments that hold us back? How do we fight through our natural responses?

Our brains are wired for survival. We have coping mechanisms when uncertain situations arise. For example, the proverbial amygdala response of fight, flight, freeze or fawn. If we succumb to our natural responses the outcomes usually hold us back and substantially impacts our team. Alternatively, we may have highly developed coping mechanisms we learned by embracing risk, vulnerability, humility, and/or authentically enacting our values. What does this look like in real life? See if any of these mini case studies resonate with you.

AI is the “it” for the investors and board right now. The CEO realizes your project, though early, would illustrate to them the company is onto AI. You are asked by the CEO to present your project at the next board meeting because it may be an additive factor for further investment in the company. Although you have presented updates to the board before, you have never been in the spotlight.

Fight – you are argumentative with the CEO about doing the presentation. When queried about what you will present, your answers are short and abrupt. You are unresponsive to the board deck deadline. You finally realize the CEO is not changing her mind. So, at the last minute you drive your team into a frenzy to get the needed information for the presentation. What would you do? Courageous leadership may look like flexing vulnerability by conversing with the CEO and negotiating a timeline for presenting your project when you and the team feel there’s enough data to prove the viability of the project. 

Flight – you look for ways to avoid doing the presentation to the investors and board. Your fear is they will see all the faults in the projects. You funnel the fear and the pressure of expectation to your team. They are infected by your fear and start to view leadership as unsupportive. What would you do? Courageous leadership in this situation may be embracing risk and dialoguing with your team on what would be reasonable to present to the board. And as part of the presentation, clearly lay out the current assumptions you and the team are working from.

Freeze – your thoughts are going in so many different directions that you do not know what to do next. Your engagement in mental juggling distracts you from working on the presentation. What you present reflects your mental juggling…its all over the place and incoherent. What would you do? Courageous leadership may look like practicing humility by reaching out to your team and trusted colleagues to ask for their help in being a sounding partner and thought partner with you to pull you out of the mental juggling and into productive clarity.

Fawn – your natural response is to appease the CEO. You say all the right things because you want to be positive and supportive. Yet you do not believe the project is ready for the kind of visibility that would result from presenting at the board meeting. Your team knows how you feel so they are confused when they see how you respond to the CEO. Your presentation paints a picture that puts you and your team in the uncomfortable position of having to perform to what you presented. What would you do? Courageous leadership may look like acting on your value of integrity and making sure the CEO understands the current status of the project, and the efforts of you and your team towards the company’s upcoming financing.

The world of work is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambivalent. Leaders who are committed to courageous leadership are sought after because they make the environment safe for everyone while advancing the business. They also model behaviors that we want to emulate because it brings out the best in us. And reminds us of the “why” in our work which motivates us to achieve for ourselves and others.

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To learn more about committing to courageous leadership and executive coaching, reach out to Hien for a consultation.