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Brave Leaders Choose Courage to Excel at Work


How courageous are you in the workplace? Have you championed a cause, made a tough and unpopular decision, or disagreed with your boss in a meeting - despite any risks it may bring? Do you know when to speak your peace, or shelve an argument for a better time? Are you “competently courageous”?

Though perceived by some as difficult, even scary workplace behaviors, courage in the form of honest communication, problem resolution, and other learning-oriented actions are vital to healthy workplace discourse, says Dr. Jim Detert, the John L. Colley Professor of Business Administration in the Leadership and Organizational Behavior area at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business Administration.

Becoming courageous in the workplace ideally begins with small, manageable steps, like those on a ladder,” Detert said. Though frightening from the start, by addressing, overcoming, and advancing up each rung on your personal courage ladder, confidence builds.

“You have to let go of the myth that courage is for the elite few. If that was true, why do we have phrases like, ‘the executive team is a bunch of yes men’? It’s a challenge for everyone, but also possible for everyone, said Detert, whose award-winning research into leadership and workplace courage, improvement-oriented voice, and ethical decision-making and behavior has appeared in Harvard Business Review, Academy of Management Journal and Research in Organizational Behavior.

“Not everyone is going to be a workplace courage champion,” he said. “But every day, they can develop the skills to be more courageous at work and in other spheres of life.”

How can you become more courageous in work - and life? These steps provided by Dr. Detert can help strengthen your voice, message, and impact when presenting an idea or argument in the workplace.

  • Prepare early for the big moments. You often determine how the big moment will go in the days, months, even years before it arrives. Establish yourself as warm and benevolent early in your career, someone whom others acknowledge and trust as competent. By stacking up these “idiosyncrasy credits” early, you’ll earn the right to push the envelope later.
  • Be confident. Fear of economic and social consequences can tamp down our bravery. “Needing” our current job in order to pay our bills or meet our obligations can curb our prudent risk-taking at work, which can make us less valuable to the organization. People feel freer to speak if they know they’ve made themselves invaluable in their current position and highly attractive for other ones.
  • Choose your battles wisely. Being confident doesn’t mean to be cavalier. People may view differently those arguments or projects that are important to you. You may win the battle, but you could still lose the war and have diminished appeal in the organization.
  • Hone your timing. Some discussions or projects may be worthy, just not now. Develop a sense for when to present your case so it’s welcomed as important to the organization. This way, you avoid speaking up before the momentum is there - or after it’s passed.
  • Frame your message. It’s natural to pitch your ideas or speak your truth the way you find most compelling. But how will others hear your case? For example, you might argue for a project or mission that pushes the opportunities to enhance workplace culture; your boss may hear it as threatening or too expensive. Match your voice and message to the recipient’s ear.
  • Feel free to be (appropriately) emotional. We’ve been told to keep emotions out of the workplace. Wrong. They’re an unavoidable human reality. Instead, well-channeled emotions can compel, inspire, or persuade people to act. After all, people follow leaders who make them feel the mission is worthwhile and the environment worth investing in.

“Finally, don’t be disheartened when a well-intended act of “courage” results in blowback. Address the situation, clear up any damage done, and see it as a lesson learned!”

Interested in hearing more?

You can find the full Jim Detert Leadership Lecture, “Choosing Courage: The Everyday Guide to Being Brave at Work" on our archived events page.

About the Leadership Lectures

The Leadership Lectures feature world-class, accomplished and influential leaders with expertise ranging from business and philanthropy to public service and academic research. Through the Lectures we hope to inspire thought-provoking dialogue within the community by providing access to the expertise, advice and best practices of some of the world’s foremost leadership minds. As such, the attendance to the lectures are free and open to the public.