Blog

July 6, 2017
Fighting Bears - Learning to Find Courage in the Workplace

While most people of my generation fell in love with Brad Pitt with his star-making turn in Thelma and Louise, he gained my attention in a movie that came out just a few years later. In Legends of the Fall, his character Tristan shows exactly how courageous he is when, in the last scene of the movie, he is attacked by a bear and fights it to the death with only a knife. The final words of the movie are, “It was a good death.” A gross understatement, I’d suggest; I was pretty spectacular. No, not because he died in a rather epic way. It was because he enters that battle with about as much courage as I can imagine.  

We all fight battles at work, though most not nearly dramatic as a bear fight. That said, that’s not the true measure of courage. In a business world where the vast majority want to “get ahead,” it’s rare to find those who are truly courageous. Workplace stress is on the rise, and it’s not all because we are working too many hours. Explore any business blog and you are bound to surmise that fear is a major contributor to workplace stress. It’s not just individual contributors this is affecting; it is management teams too. History has shown that when people have summoned the guts to take some risks and lead when things are precarious, they generally prevail. At the very least, they sleep better at night knowing they gave it their best shot.  

What does it mean to be a courageous leader? Consider these few soul-searching attributes to learn if you are ready to fight the bear… or at the very least, to make a call on an important project.

YOU FOCUS ON REALITY, NOT FANTASY
Problems and challenges don’t solve themselves or disappear because we close our eyes real tight and hope the storm passes. If you are a courageous leader, you take the time to truly explore that “real” state of what’s occurring. So, you can lead your team to the best result.

YOU ACTIVELY ENGAGE & LISTEN TO OTHERS
Contrary to popular belief, even the smartest people don’t have all the answers. As a courageous leader, you actively seek feedback from a diverse set of colleagues to ensure you have a complete picture. You listen, you encourage pushback, and broaden your perspective in the process.

YOU SAY WHAT OTHERS ARE LIKELY THINKING
No one truly enjoys difficult conversations or a situation where there is likely to be conflict involved. That said, courageous leaders take the bold step to engage in those important discussions, with the goal of slicing through the drama to get to a positive outcome. Sometimes, this requires you to share an opinion or point of view that isn’t going to be popular.  But you do it, and you own it.

YOU AREN’T AFRAID TO MAKE A TOUGH CALL
No one enjoys making a decision that is going to viewed as unpopular or cause distress (e.g. terminating a well-liked team member, for example). That said, a courageous leader will tackle those tough calls before the situation gets toxic. Whether it is regarding a poor performer, a difficult customer, or a bad team dynamic, when leaders step up and take those tough actions, they do so in order to help the team and company thrive.

YOU ARE TRANSPARENT AND OPEN
It’s not enough to take actions and then share after the fact. Courageous leaders are known for communicating the context behind their decisions as well. They provide a clear, concise message, answer questions openly, and admit when they don’t have the answer.  

YOU EMBRACE CHANGE, NOT FEAR IT
When people go into protection mode, it’s typically to guard that which is familiar to them.  Courageous leaders make the effort to think bigger, and drive towards better outcomes even if that requires change. They have embraced the notion that with change comes opportunity, rather than focus on the unknowns. And then they help lead others through that change, to a more positive impact than they could have imagined on their own.

YOU ARE DECISIVE AND ACCOUNTABLE
As a courageous leader, you are willing to make a tough decision, and then take the accountability to lead it to fruition. You’ll also hold others on the team accountable to ensure they accomplish their piece, and call it out when they fail to so as to keep the team on course. Also, you need to embrace the notion that sometimes, when you make bold calls, you may stumble or fail along the way. Invest your energy in building resiliency; no one ever gets it all right all the time. Take those moments and use them as learning opportunities.  

YOU KNOW WHEN TO STICK TO YOUR GUNS
It’s one thing to involve others in the process and develop a broad point of view that contributes to your choices. However, a truly courageous leader will also not give up if they are facing an unpopular decision. It’s hard to make decisions about team members or when you are worried about your own popularity or reputation as a result. The truly courageous among us will summon their inner strength and make the tough calls because they believe that’s the right thing to do, regardless of the outcome to them. It takes both mental and emotional skill to appreciate when it’s wise to hold your ground, and when to compromise.  

Leading with courage is about so much more than standing up in front of a room of people to present, or other acts which people consider “brave.” A truly courageous leader will take on the proverbial bear when necessary, if it is in the best interest of their team.  


Christina Luconi is Chief People Officer for Rapid7. Follow her on Twitter: @peopleinnovator.