In the context of her advocacy for girls’ right to education, Malala Yousafzai—the youngest Nobel Laureate of all time—said, “We were scared, but our fear was not as strong as our courage.”
At the height of the migrant crisis in Europe and Germany, policies related to the arrival of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa were being fiercely contested. In response to that crisis, Angela Merkel observed, “If we now have to start apologizing for showing a friendly face in response to emergency situations, then that’s not my country.” She was the Chancellor of Germany at that time and her brave position led to the arrival of over a million refugees.
Yvon Chouinard, the founder and longtime leader of Patagonia, once said, “Evil doesn’t have to be an overt act; it can be merely the absence of good. If you have the ability, the resources, and the opportunity to do good and you do nothing, that can be evil.” He is credited with creating and leading one of the most responsible corporations in the world.
A common ingredient in these powerful stories from the private, public, and social sectors is extraordinary leadership courage, in both thinking and action.
The concept of courage has been associated with leadership for centuries. Narratives of courageous action are prevalent in mythological, historical, religious, and popular writings. Philosophical and scientific literatures offer important insights in this regard as well. For instance, courage is one of the key virtues in Aristotle’s philosophy. Empirical work by Tkachenko et al. (2022) shows how manifestations of courageous behaviour in organizations contribute positively to organizational performance. Highlighting Ivey Business School research on leadership character, the IBJ Insight “Mobilizing Character”—which examined Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s influence as a war-time leader—noted that courage is an essential ingredient of selfless and effective leadership.
But while the notion of courage is implicitly understood and commonly admired, its specific meaning, as well as its implications for leadership and method of implementation, are not always clear. Guidance is also lacking with regard to the antecedents of courage and ways to inculcate a courageous orientation in leadership practice more widely.
The purpose of this article is to explain the concept of courage and how to approach it in leadership practice by drawing on recent behavioural science and practice-based evidence. Specifically, it addresses four questions: What is courage? What does leadership courage look like in practice? Where does courage come from? And finally, how can we grow and sustain leadership courage?
What is courage?
Courage is a multifaceted and complex concept. As one can imagine, a simple definition may not capture its nuance and richness. On the other hand, a definition that is too broad and lacking a basis in evidence may be confusing and unhelpful. An important conceptualization of courage was offered by Rate and colleagues (2007), which offers a good balance in terms of simplicity, clarity, and richness. Based on a review of existing literature and their own empirical work, they conceptualized courage as: (a) a willful, intentional act, (b) executed after mindful deliberation, (c) involving objective substantial risk to the actor, (d) primarily motivated to bring about a noble good or worthy end, (e) despite, perhaps, the presence of the emotion of fear. This definition is characterized by clarity and parsimony, while at the same time it outlines important ingredients of courage. It emphasizes intentionality and thoughtfulness as a starting point. It notes that from an individual’s perspective, courage entails real risk. The definition is anchored in a normative stance outlining a commitment to fairness. And finally, it emphasizes that the presence of fear does not imply the absence of courage. This conceptualization offers a clear set of dimensions for leaders and practitioners to use to understand the nature and practical relevance of courage.
What does leadership courage look like in practice?
Grace Lordan leads the Inclusion Initiative at the London School of Economics. She highlights courage as the most important aspect of leadership for meeting current and future challenges. In 2023, Lordan outlined some specific ways in which leaders embrace and practice courageous behaviours. Firstly, courageous leadership is willing to take risks to bring change and to innovate. This risk-taking involves listening to others, flexibility, and willingness to embrace failure. Secondly, courageous leadership is intentional about delegating responsibility and empowering others. This emphasis on autonomy, in turn, contributes to trust building, increased employee satisfaction, and better performance. In his Harvard Business Review article “What Courageous Leaders Do Differently,” James Detert observes that courageous leaders put principles first, show openness and humility, and create environments where others feel safe.
This article opened with courageous actions by cross-sector leaders in the national and international arenas focused on policy change, cultural transformation, and new organizational models. However, Kathy Miller Perkins in a recent Forbes article noted that acts of courage are not only about monumental heroic deeds, but also entail everyday endeavours that make life easier, more enjoyable, and more meaningful for ourselves and for others. Her examples of courageous actions include (a) a team member speaking up in a team meeting to challenge groupthink or unethical behaviours, (b) a leader confronting and disciplining those who indulge in bullying or toxic behaviours, (c) a researcher not waiting to share her findings because the solutions may improve present human conditions, and (d) senior leadership creating a culture of psychological safety where organizational members can speak up without fear and take risks.
“Evidence suggests that all meaningful leadership improvement starts with self-inquiry and self-awareness.”
Where does courage come from?
In “The Most Critical Ingredient in Leadership,” Jacqueline Novogratz and Ann Welsh McNulty highlight the importance of developing courage. “Moral courage,” they assert, “is not something you are born with—it must be cultivated and developed. Through our work, we have seen practices that help to identify, foster, direct, and sustain this courage.” Both authors have been extensively involved in leadership development initiatives with a global footprint. Their assertion that leadership courage must be cultivated and developed is quite significant from a leadership development and practice perspective. They cite the example of the Aspen Institute’s leadership development initiatives. These two-year-long leadership development investments help participants articulate their anchoring values, nurture and boost their moral courage, and align their leadership to tackle some of the most entrenched problems around the world. Finally, Novogratz and McNulty offer three specific pathways to cultivate moral courage: (a) practise self-inquiry and self-awareness, (b) examine and clarify core values in dialogue with others, and (c) build systems of trust and nourishment.
Evidence suggests that all meaningful leadership improvement starts with self-inquiry and self-awareness. In the context of courageous leadership, this would entail the courage to challenge one’s long-held beliefs, fears, and blind spots. Articulation of one’s core values sits at the foundation of cultivating courageous leadership. Achieving clarity around these values through sincere self-reflection and consultation provides an important bridge towards courageous practices. The work of change, innovation, and justice across different sectors requires sustained effort over a long period of time. It also involves resistance, failure, and learning. Therefore, it becomes important from both an individual and an institutional perspective to identify and establish systems that support and nourish the intricate work of courageous leadership, especially during challenging times. Some specific initiatives may include access to peer advisors, coaching, short sabbaticals, and support networks.
How can courageous leadership be grown and sustained?
The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) boasts over five decades of experience in leadership research and development. Based on this massive set of learning, it offers the following three insights about the nature and effectiveness of leadership, which are relevant to cultivating, growing, and sustaining courageous leadership.
- Firstly, like Novogratz and McNulty observed above and in line with other research, the CCL asserts that leadership is cultivated and not inherited. However, the process of cultivating leadership needs to be deliberate, systematic, and long-term.
- Secondly, it posits that collaborations build strong leadership. Leadership is a social process and even in cases where the leadership responsibility resides with a single individual, their success often depends on cooperative relationships. Increasingly, leadership resides within collaborative structures including senior management teams, dyads, and cross-sector partnerships.
- Finally, good leadership never stops—meaning leadership learning and skill development must continue throughout one’s career. Many high-profile successful leaders intentionally and continually invest in their learning. While all leadership presents challenges of a different nature over time, courageous leadership confronts tests and trials that demand risk-taking, flexibility, openness to experiments, and an ongoing willingness to adapt.
Miller Perkins argues that showing courage is also about finding meaning. “By attending to others instead of yourself,” she observes, “you become less self-important and more able to act courageously for the greater good.” In other words, learning to embrace courage brings purposefulness and that, in turn, becomes an important ingredient in its sustenance.
Mary Crossan, Gerard Seijts, and Jeffrey Gandz, Developing Leadership Character (New York, NY: Routledge Publishing, 2016).
James R. Detert, “What Courageous Leaders Do Differently,” Harvard Business Review, January 7, 2022, https://hbr.org/2022/01/what-courageous-leaders-do-differently.
Grace Lordan, “Courage and Leadership in 2023,” London School of Economics, January 4, 2023, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/businessreview/2023/01/04/courage-and-leadership-in-2023.
Jacqueline Novogratz and Anne Welsh McNulty, “The Most Critical Ingredient in Leadership,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, July 6, 2022.
Kathy Miller Perkins, “Want to Make a Difference? Show Courage and Find Meaning — Here Is How,” Forbes, August 23, 2022, https://www.forbes.com/sites/kathymillerperkins/2022/08/23/how-to-conquer-fear-show-simple-courage-and-increase-your-impact/?sh=2ddcd298534b.
Christopher R. Rate, Jennifer A. Clarke, Douglas R. Lindsay, and Robert J. Sternberg, “Implicit Theories of Courage,” The Journal of Positive Psychology 2, no. 2 (2007): 80–98.
Oleksandr Tkachenko, Louis N. Quast, Wei Song, and Soebin Jang, “Courage in the Workplace: The Effects of Organizational Level and Gender on the Relationship between Behavioral Courage and Job Performance,” Journal of Management & Organization 26, no. 5 (2020): 899–915.
Thomas Watson, “Mobilizing Character,” Ivey Business Journal, March/April 2022, https://iveybusinessjournal.com/mobilizing-character.