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A shade braver – the many colours of courage

A shade braver – the many colours of courage
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A shade braver – the many colours of courage 

If leadership is about changing things, then it’s often going to need courage to take an act of leadership. However, the courage needed doesn’t always look like typical heroic action, sometimes it leans heavily on our humanity and how prepared we are to show up and make ourselves vulnerable. Earlier this year, Jacinda Arden’s compassionate and human response to the Christchurch mosque shootings led her to be hailed as one of the great leaders of our times.  As we learn to respond and lead in an increasingly complex world, we will need to draw on different types of courage - so what might these look like?  

Courage is not an easily defined concept; it is different for everyone and varies according to context and culture and from moment to moment. In a busy western workplace, people can often feel disempowered, intimidated by other voices or anxious about how their own might be received. To say something or to challenge a decision doesn’t require a courageous personality, it doesn’t rely on having an image of yourself as a brave person - it depends on seeing the need for action and, crucially, not listening to the inner voice that tries to dissuade you. Every time you do something like that, however risky, you become more yourself, and you become an example to others. Perhaps we should focus less on courage as a personality trait and more becoming, as David Whyte puts it, ‘a shade braver.’ [1]  

So, if leadership is exemplary action, how can we create environments where it’s OK to step up and act in service of changing things for the better, whatever your role?  Google’s quest to understand the qualities of high performing teams revealed some of the factors that support courage in teams. Psychological safety was far and away the most important of the five dynamics that the project identified. If team members feel safe to speak up, share outlying ideas, admit to mistakes and share their real feelings, their team performs better. “The behaviors that create psychological safety — conversational turn-taking and empathy — are part of the same unwritten rules we often turn to, as individuals, when we need to establish a bond. And those human bonds matter as much at work as anywhere else. In fact, they sometimes matter more”.[2] Indeed, as we confront an uncertain world together, this collective form of courage will matter more than ever before.

Another aspect of creating safe spaces for people to access their leadership courage is respecting people’s autonomy as learners. On Impact programmes, we find that by helping people to open up about the beliefs behind their choices, they can start building the awareness of self and others that is essential to making courageous acts of leadership. We co-create a space in which people are invited to look inwards and go deeper; we don’t make participants go there e.g. we might offer them inspirational and thought-provoking images or quotes and ask what resonates with them, or give them a provocative question and the time to reflect deeply on what this means for them.  By offering them the choice to explore this in a safe environment, we can help them strengthen their capacity to manage the internal chatter that might be holding them back, releasing the latent leadership courage that otherwise might remain unseen. 

For those in positional leadership roles, it is a less obvious form of courage to admit that you don’t have all the answers and to lead from a place of curiosity, learning and faith in other people. This is one of the few truly viable options available in the face of big, open ended complex problems. You might call this the courage to lead when you don’t know the way forward - and it is brave on several levels. Firstly, it challenges the prevailing stereotypes of what “leaders” are supposed to do, secondly it entails handling a lot of ambiguity for extended periods of time and thirdly it entails learning new skills including facilitating dialogue, coping with being vulnerable yourself, suspending the need always to know and searching for the right questions, all while working alongside others as equals. 

There’s a final form of courage that’s even more rarely mentioned – the courage to open up and ask what the world might need from you, from your current place in the system – then to follow the path that opens. This may need you to challenge the perceived boundaries of what you’re “supposed” to do. It requires the mindfulness to sense the system around you, fully to acknowledge your own part in what’s playing out, to hold yourself and others in compassion (with as little judgement as you can) and still to move towards doing the right thing. This form of courage applies to reaching out across organisational silos to solve a problem; also connecting with people outside your organisation to find a way forward in the face of multifaceted, complex problems. This is not a path of certainty and it takes humility and resilience to face the ambiguity, rejection and criticism that may well come your way as you challenge the status quo or seek to learn from people very different from yourself.  

We believe that it is vital that we start building these different forms of courage - to acknowledge difficult feelings with each other, to have difficult conversations and to confront what is going on around us with honesty and compassion. We are seeing numerous examples of this courage, such as Greta Thunberg, a sixteen-year-old girl who has addressed world leaders, spoken in front of crowds thousands strong, and persevered in the face of a vicious backlash. 

Courage comes in many colours and shapes. We don’t own it: it finds us when we see clearly the opportunity to change things for the better and it becomes a habit when we take those opportunities. The possibility of courage begins when we notice that we are afraid but understand that that is not a good enough reason not to act. 

Greg Bartlett - Senior Consultant, Impact Australia 


[1] Whyte, D. HALF A SHADE BRAVER: The Foundations of Conversational Leadership. [Online]. 2016. Available from:

[2] New York Times. What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team. [Online]. 2016. Available from: