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Cultivating the courage to lead

Developing your leadership capabilities will require mindful practice, every day, of making courageous choices.

5 min read




“Put ‘em up! Put ‘em up!” says the Cowardly Lion as he confronts the palace guards.

Of course, by this time in the story, we know that the beloved “The Wizard of Oz” character is more bluster than Braveheart.

By the end of the tale, our Lion learns the truth about courage, that it isn’t about bullying others but about standing firm in our convictions. It isn’t something that is born into our natures either, but is something that anyone — even a cowardly lion — can cultivate and practice. And this is good news for every hopeful future leader in business, and in life.

The topic of leadership seems to be everywhere. There are countless books, blogs, and podcasts on how to become the leader you want to be. I’ve written several of those myself. But when you boil it all down to its essence, leadership is about choosing to be courageous.

To be clear, it is not as if you are going to get up one morning and say to yourself, “Hey, I think I’ll be a leader now!” Developing your leadership capabilities will require mindful practice, every day, of making courageous choices.

“Why,” you might ask, “does leadership require courage?”

Leadership in any area of life involves risk. Granted, a career in business, education, health care or other mission-driven organization does not generally involve running into a burning building to save the family cat, but there are still challenges that can produce enough fear to stop us in our tracks. Here are three:

Fear of failure. We live in a success-oriented culture. The fear of failure encourages us to remain on the safe, yet ultimately self-limiting, path. The sad thing is, “failure” is rarely well-defined and in fact means different things to different people, and at different times in different places. It is worthwhile to ask yourself honestly and often, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” Usually, the worst possible outcome of a situation is not only unlikely but is something you really can deal with.

Fear of success. I know, it sounds weird. But don’t be fooled: I have seen many talented professionals sabotage their success over the fear of achieving it. Reaching your goals might leave you with a blank slate, a gnawing feeling of “What’s next?” Worse, what if achieving success doesn’t feel as great as you thought it would? What if you hate where you have landed? If that’s the case, review fear No. 1. What if your closest friends and colleagues begin to resent you for being happy? Move on to fear No. 3.

Fear of not being liked. Everyone wants to be liked. That goes for leaders, too. The difference is that leaders are willing to put this personal desire aside when the situation demands an unpopular decision. Often, unfortunately, the most important decisions are those that make no one happy. At those times, leaders focus on doing what is right.

Anyone — everyone — can overcome these, and any other, fears related to becoming a leader. It doesn’t require a monumental leap of faith. It requires a commitment to practice. Think of it this way: If you were planning to train for your first-ever marathon and had never run before, you wouldn’t just show up at the gate on race day, right? You would start small, building each day, until you had the strength and stamina to go the distance.

It is the same way with leadership. Start with small, daily decisions that point you toward your goal. Be sure to include things that make you a little uncomfortable. Those are the ones that will build your leadership muscles. Go to a networking event or volunteer to sit on a workshop panel. Take on a project at work that involves learning a new skill — quickly. Ask your supervisor if you can sit in on meetings of a committee that is tackling a tough strategic issue.

Each of these activities chips away at those three big fears. Will you stumble? Of course. But I promise you, every success will make you eager to keep going.

Just like the marathon runner, your small, leader-focused choices will develop your capacity to choose leadership. When the time comes to make the big decisions, you’ll be ready.


Dennis C. Miller is a nationally recognized strategic leadership coach, executive search consultant, author and motivational speaker. He is the managing director of The Nonprofit Search Group with more than 35 years of experience working with nonprofit board leadership and chief executives across the country. Miller is also an expert in board governance, leadership development, philanthropy and succession planning. In addition, he is a sought-after motivational speaker, retreat facilitator and leadership performance coach. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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