April 1, 2023

Courageous Leadership: A 3-Part Roadmap for Changemakers

Leadership Development

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Recently, a couple of my MEDI Leadership coach colleagues and I had the opportunity to collaborate with a group of healthcare leaders in the northeast. It was our final session of a year-long cohort of provider leaders. Having spent the past several months meeting together regularly, the participating leaders have come to know each other well and have developed a foundation of trust so open discussion flowed.   

Courageous leadership was a topic of discussion. It inspired me to write this post with a goal of helping others who want to become more courageous leaders. 

What is Courage?   

I appreciate this simple, yet powerful, definition from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles.”  

Courage isn’t about being fearless. It is the ability to act despite being afraid. I’m a big believer that much of the magic in life and in work happens outside your comfort zone. As an executive leadership coach collaborating with individual leaders and groups of leaders, I’m blessed to observe examples of courageous leadership often as clients become more self-aware and intentional about how they will lead courageously.  

When we asked this group of leaders to share examples of leaders whom they’d describe as courageous, examples ranged from world-renowned leaders like Nelson Mandela to healthcare providers and leaders who demonstrated courage in so many ways as they cared for communities during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, to a spouse who leads a 20-person work team and co-leads a family.  

Personally, as a history nerd, I thought of Ernest Shackleton, an explorer who led a crew of approximately 25 men on an expedition to the South Pole in the early 20th century. Their ship became trapped in an ice pack in the Antarctic for about six months. Despite the extremely perilous circumstances and uncertainty, as a courageous leader, Shackleton acknowledged the reality of their situation and intentionally helped himself and his crew remain engaged, determined, connected and hopeful. In the end, all survived. 

(As an aside, if you’re also a history nerd or just interested in learning more about Shackleton and the expedition, I recommend “Shackleton’s Way.” It’s a quick read).

We’ve all seen, heard, or read about examples of courageous leadership. Who comes to mind for you when you think of a courageous leader and why? What did you observe? How did it make you feel? Courageous leaders are memorable, inspiring, and help us feel more courageous as well. 

Building Your Courage

To become a more courageous person and leader, start with a little self-reflection:

  • Think back to a time when you demonstrated courage. What happened? How did you feel? 
  • Consider why you have chosen not to be courageous at times. What were some unintended consequences?
  • What are the indicators that you are courageous? How do/will you know you are being courageous as a person, as a leader?
  • What would be some benefits of being more courageous as a person and as a leader for yourself, your family, your team, your community, [insert your key stakeholders here]?  
The 3 Types of Courage 

Consider these three domains of courage when building your courage, gleaned from “Courage Goes to Work” by Bill Treasurer:

1. Try Courage: the courage to act, take initiative, do something for the first time.

One leader in our cohort is standing up a residency program. Another is developing and growing a successful Hospital at Home program for the community. These are examples of Try Courage.

2. Trust Courage: confidence in others; a willingness to delegate and resist the temptation to control others.

Some of us extend trust immediately. For others, trust is something earned over time. Which describes you? How does this impact your Trust Courage?

“I’ll do it myself” is a self-protective strategy many of us employ, unintentionally spreading ourselves too thin and robbing others of opportunities to learn and grow. If this resonates with you, providing a clear vision, expectations, guardrails and regular status check-ins can help you let go more easily, giving team members a chance to grow, learn, and meet or exceed expectations.

One leader we worked with shared an example of a team member “managing up” a co-worker to a patient/family, demonstrating trust by letting the patient/family know they’ll be in good hands when a handoff occurs to a caregiver from another area. Another shared an example of a Stoplight report and how using it has helped him build trust with and among members of his practice team, as well as serving as a visual reminder of progress the team is making together on shared goals and improvement efforts.  

3. Tell Courage: the courage of voice; speaking up and saying what is hard to say. 

Some of the leaders in our cohort indicated that this one has historically been the hardest for them. They shared examples of how they have built leadership muscle in this area over the past year, intentionally and respectfully speaking up more often. When we explored what holds us back from speaking up, examples included things such as fear of creating conflict, of harming relationships, of being wrong or viewed negatively as self-promoting, a know-it-all, etc.     

Trust-based relationships are key to building a high performing team. Getting to know, respect and value team members as people helps build trust. Constructive conflict is also a critical component of a high-performance team. Encouraging people to openly share their ideas, opinions and perspectives can help foster interdependence and help teams shape better programs, services, processes and outcomes together. 

Sometimes we are reluctant to address performance or behavioral issues with colleagues or direct reports out of compassion or fear of harming the relationship. However, the unintended consequences of not addressing it are often worse. If the issue isn’t brought to the person’s attention, it is likely to continue or get worse, building frustration for them, for you and others. Respectfully, supportively addressing issues and seeking to understand what is behind them can build trust, confidence and lead to higher levels of performance.

Your Simple Courageous Leadership Plan

Time to move to action. As you’ve read this post and reflected on your own Courageous Leadership, what are three insights you’ve gained?

Which domain (TRY, TRUST, TELL) are you most courageous in and why? Which would you like to intentionally use more often?  

What one or two things will you do differently to intentionally become a more courageous leader? How can you practice this? Who can give you feedback?

A coach can be a great partner in helping to accelerate your growth and progress as a leader. Please reach out if you would like to explore together.

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About the author

Kathy Gibala

Kathy Gibala is a sought-after executive leadership coach with more than 25 years of healthcare industry experience and over 15 years as a coach. She is honored to serve as a trusted partner and change catalyst to healthcare executives across the US to raise the bar on their leadership, build high-performing teams, and accelerate transformative change. Kathy incorporates neuroscience-based coaching techniques to help healthcare leaders expand their impact and reach their fullest potential.

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