February 2011
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February 2011
Newsletter Article

The First Virtue of Leadership: Courage Building

Courage, according to Aristotle, is the first virtue because it makes all the other virtues possible. If that's true, then courage is also the first virtue in the workplace.

Think about all of the important workplace concepts that connect to courage. Leadership, for example, requires rendering decisions that some people will resist. Leadership requires courage. Innovation, for example, involves creating ground-breaking, but tradition-defying, ideas. Innovation involves courage. Sales and business development require knocking on hundreds of doors in the face of countless rejections. Selling takes courage. In fact, without courage, concepts like leadership, innovation, and sales don't exist.

In normal times, workers can be broadly divided into two camps: safety-seekers and opportunity-seekers. But in times of economic instability, such as right now, the majority of workers become safety-seekers, often to the detriment of their organizations. When fear drives workers' behaviors, they become distracted, afraid, and unproductive when their companies need them to be the opposite. Fear is bad for business.

During tough economic times, leaders are faced with two challenges:

  1. applying their own courage (e.g., leading courageously)
  2. activating the courage of those they lead.

Courage is a skill

In 2002 I founded Giant Leap Consulting, a consulting firm devoted to building individual and organizational courage. Having led courage-building workshops for thousands of leaders and workers throughout the country, I'm convinced that courage is a skill that can be developed and strengthened.


Who wins in a courageous workforce? Everyone. With less fear and more courage, workers show more step-up-to-the-plate initiative by taking on harder projects. With more courage, workers trust one another more fully, and stop questioning people's "secret" motives. And with more courage, workers speak more candidly, honestly, and assertively. In short, when the behavior of workers is directed by courage and not fear, you see more initiative, more trust, and more assertiveness, all of which can have a transformational impact on an organization's culture.

If you're in a leadership role, an essential element of your job is to activate people's courage. What follows are three tips for building your own courage, and three tips for inspiring more courageous behavior among those you lead.

Three courage-building tips for YOU:

  1. Identify the dangers of hyper-safety: Ask yourself this critical question: Where am I playing it too safe at work? Too much caution can be a bad thing, particularly if it makes your leadership hesitant and tentative. Identify the costs associated with playing it too safe. Has your career plateaued? Has your job become stale or boring? What are you going to do about it?
  2. Have sweaty palms: Before expecting others to behave courageously, put your own courage to work. As a leader, you should intentionally take on roles or challenges that are so outside of your comfort zone that they cause your palms to sweat. It's your body's way of letting you know that you've moved into your courage zone.
  3. Study leaders you admire: Who do you admire, inside or outside of work, for their leadership? How does courage factor into the way they lead or the challenges they've faced? When you study the leadership of leaders you admire, you'll nearly always find a connection between courage and their effectiveness as a leader.

Three courage-building tips to inspire courage in OTHERS:

  1. Give people something to prove: People grow when they have to prove themselves to themselves. Provide people and teams with stretch assignments that hold them accountable to a higher standard of performance.
  2. Encourage constructive dissent: Despite valuing honesty more than any other leader attribute, workers are apt to bite their tongues when it comes to disagreeing with a leader. As a leader, you have to give people permission to disagree with you. It's critical, though, that you coach workers on how to disagree with you in a way that won't put up your defenses. Set a clear expectation that constructive feedback is far more important to one's career than brown nosing.
  3. Reward courageous behavior: It is not enough to reward successful outcomes. To signal to the workforce that behaving courageously is truly valued, you also need to reward courageous behavior, regardless of whether that behavior produced a successful outcome. When workers take calculated risks, or even make forward-falling mistakes, their behavior needs to be recognized and rewarded if you expect others to extend themselves too.

The bottom line is this: As a leader, putting courage inside of people (literally, encouraging people) is your job. When everyone in your workplace is working more courageously, the entire organization is transformed for the better. Performance, morale, and engagement increase, and fear and anxiety decrease. Given the overwhelming benefits that courage can have on your work environment, leading courageously is the best investment you can make in yourself and in your organization.

Bill Treasurer is founder and chief encouragement officer at Giant Leap Consulting (GLC), a courage building company that exists to help people and organizations live more courageously. Bill is the author of Courage Goes to Work, Courageous Leadership: Using Courage to Transform the Workplace, and Right; Risk;

About the Author

Bill Treasurer is the chief encouragement officer (CEO) of Giant Leap Consulting, a courage-building company. For more than two decades, Bill has traveled the world working with thousands of executives to strengthen their leadership impact. He is the author of the international bestseller, Courage Goes to Work and Courageous Leadership. His newest book is Leaders Open Doors (ASTD Press).

Bill’s government clients include NASA, the National Science Foundation, the CDC, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Veterans Administration Hospitals. Other clients include Accenture, Booz Allen Hamilton, Saks Fifth Avenue, PNC Bank, Hugo Boss, UBS Bank, Borg Warner, and Spanx.

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