Leadership Courage (and How to Develop It)


It’s seems hard to believe now, considering more than 367,000 people work for his company and its subsidiaries, but for years, this man had arranged his life around his fear. Fear had limited him in his leadership and in his ability to connect with others.

But he had the courage to overcome that fear.

In his office today, a single diploma hangs over his desk as a reminder of his triumph over that fear. He also has diplomas from the University of Nebraska and Columbia Business School, but this is the only one he displays.

That diploma is from the Dale Carnegie Course. And the man whose office it hangs in is Warren Buffett.

Is fear holding you back?

The natural human response to fear is to guard against the threat. When you are confronted with a perceived threat, information is sent to the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing. When the amygdala is activated, it sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus, which is the brain’s command center for the body’s nervous system. The command to the body: Fight or flight.

Think about what happens when people guard against fear. They:

  • Hide
  • Hold back
  • Argue
  • Check out
  • Criticize
  • Blame
  • Ignore
  • Protect
  • Limit
  • Power up
  • Shut down
  • Avoid
  • Prove
  • Defend

It’s not easy to connect, collaborate, create, or commit in life and work when you’re guarding against fear — when you’re busy either fighting or flighting. But it takes courage to conquer that fear.

How do people develop the courage to dare greatly rather than guard? How did Warren Buffett do it? Here are some tangible steps you can take today to conquer the fears that might be getting in the way of your own ability to connect, collaborate, create, or commit.

4 Steps to Developing Courage

  1. Qualify your assessment of risk and clarify your assessment of reward. As Voltaire once put it, “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.” What is the true risk you’re facing? The fact is, most are overinflated. Plane crashes, terminal illness, and business failures do happen, but life is often less catastrophic than our minds make it out to be.

    Courage also comes from clarifying the reward. This highlights the importance of articulating vision, mission, and values. Or, as Simon Sinek explains in his famous TED Talk: Start with Why. Committing mentally to purpose and outcomes creates the driving force to proceed in the face of possible danger.

    Dale Carnegie facilitators operate by the Transformation Formula: Emotional Change (EC) + Behavior Change (BC) = Performance Change (PC). Qualifying risk and clarifying reward is the EC needed to complement positive action. We think and act. Be and do.
  2. Separate emotionally from the source of fear. In his book “A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix,” the late psychologist and executive coach Edwin Freidman described courageous leaders as those who have clarity about their life goals and are therefore ”less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about.” He goes on: “I mean someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others, and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing.”

    He refers to this ability as differentiation, or “charting one’s own way by means of one’s own internal guidance system, rather than perpetually eyeing the ‘scope’ to see where others are at.” It’s characterized by:
    • Having the capacity to take a stand
    • Asserting ”I” when others are demanding “we”
    • Containing one’s reactivity to the reactivity of others
    • Maintaining a non-anxious presence in the face of anxious others
    • Knowing where one ends and another begins
    • Not automatically being one of the system’s emotional dominoes
    • Taking maximum responsibility for one’s own emotional being and destiny rather than blaming others or the context
  3. Increase agency over that which makes you afraid. For the most part, you can’t control what happens to you. Life is chance. People react in ways we don’t expect. But we can manage our performance in the face of fear. And we can manage processes much more than results.

    Sometimes process can refer to the sequencing of work effort. For example, it might be a workflow among colleagues or a daily routine for exercise and productivity. Other times, process can come in the form of methods for navigating a difficult situation, such as the frameworks for giving feedback, generating conversation, selling an idea, or responding to resistance that are included in Dale Carnegie training courses. These proven methods guide what to say (or not say) and what to do (or not do), especially when the hypothalamus is sending fight or flight responses to the body.
  4. Practice, practice, practice. Charles J. Limb, M.D., a surgeon, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and jazz saxophonist, analyzed the brains of six professional jazz musicians in a series of fMRI studies. The pianist-subjects used a keyboard designed without metal parts so it could be played inside an fMRI machine. During fMRI sessions, each musician was asked to:
    • Play a simple C-major scale in time with a metronome
    • Improvise using the C-major scale in time with the metronome
    • Play a previously memorized blues tune to a recording of a jazz quartet
    • Improvise to the same jazz quartet recording


    Limb found that activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex slowed down when the musicians improvised. Lower levels of activity in this self-monitoring and self-censoring region of the brain are related to lower levels of inhibition.

    Analysis of the fMRI studies of the improvisation also found higher levels of activity in the medial prefrontal cortex at the center of the brain’s frontal lobe. This region of the brain is associated with self-expression and autobiography. It lights up on fMRI scans when subjects are participating in activities such as telling a story about themselves or, in the case of the jazz musicians, creating a solo that sounds uniquely their own.

    In other words, courageous expression happens after the internal critic signs off, and with continued repetition, a skill can move from automatic to inspired.

As Warren Buffett discovered, it takes courage to overcome fear, and courage shows up differently for different people in different circumstances. The courage you need today may be the courage to have an opinion, take a stand, make a decision, be hopeful, forgive, create, fail, have a conversation, or do nothing.

Are you ready to tackle what’s holding back?

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