What does organizational courage demand?
In part one of my two-part post, I introduced the notion of organizational courage and shared my thoughts on what it is and provided some framing. In this post I will share practical strategies and action steps you can take to build courage within your organization.
As we know, the root for bravery is medieval French (“brave” meaning “splendid, valiant”) and medieval Italian (“bravo,” which originally meant “bold, wild, or savage”), and one could get the idea that bravery is all about show—and that drama, outward appearances, and public approval are important aspects of bravery. However, the root for courage is the Latin word “cor,” meaning “heart.” So, courage is about doing what is closest to the heart—in other words, what is important and gives us life.
The motive for courage is what makes it special; the role of courage is to make our vision and values real. Hence, I define organizational courage as the will to act in the face of fear or despair in order to enhance constructive and human growth.
Courage demands a personal vs. unexamined commitment1
When an organization simply “sells” the vision and “socializes” employees, it does not foster a personal commitment to deeper values and meaning. The introspection needed to personally commit to an action or idea is not performed by the vast majority of people and is not encouraged in organizational life. If one does take the time to reflect on the deeper meaning of an issue, the resulting values and actions will often fly in the face of currently established norms. Courageous people raise questions that others would not even think to ask. Remember the management team mentioned in part one of this blog post? What each of them struggled with was personal commitment—for the first time, they were faced with examining the meaning of the vision and the potential impact on their lives.
Courage demands being centered in values and vision
In many organizations, the vision and values, if stated, are rhetoric nicely framed on the wall or stuck in desk drawers and hauled out once a year for the annual report. Being “centered” in the vision and values means being continually focused and in dialog about them throughout the organization and, therefore, ensuring that they truly drive the organization’s day-to-day operating culture.
Courage means facing fears, living with anxiety, and letting go of results
I have watched people at every level of an organization wait patiently to “be empowered” from above, including a president who wanted to “be empowered” by the board. Courage is the power in empowerment.
When we strive to create our vision, the results aren’t predictable. To worry and obsess about them and try to control the outcome of our efforts before we even start will paralyze us. Unfortunately many organizational processes not only encourage but promote this “analysis paralysis” and penalize heavily for mistakes made along the way.
How do you build organizational courage?
Wherever you are in the organization
Empower yourself first.
It is critical to clarify your own vision and values before signing up for someone else’s. Most adults have not thought about their values since they were teenagers, and yet our personal values shape our actions and responses to life. No matter where you are in an organization, you need to know what you stand for first. Then you can decide if the vision and values espoused by the organization are something you want to embrace. There will be no joy in working for an organization that you cannot fundamentally support. If vision and values have not been clarified or are out of focus, you have an opportunity to help shape them.
Start working in your “own backyard.” No matter if you run a business, manage a department of 70, or simply manage your own desk, you can start to create the kind of organization in which you want to work. Are you committed to providing stellar customer service? Then start giving it to everyone for whom you work and who works for you, rather than complain about poor service from others. By doing so, you will become much more centered in what customer service means, and by your actions you will begin to show others how to follow suit. You can start a multiplier effect simply by acting on the vision and values to which you are committed, and have a powerful impact on the organization without needing a fancy title or positional authority.
Help the organization find its touchstones and anchors.
An organization’s vision, mission, and values are its core, its anchors during turbulent times. They reflect our highest call to make a difference, feel useful, and be part of a successful and worthwhile organization—but we need to translate that call to everyday action, and sometimes we need help in doing that. A touchstone is a symbol, idea, mental picture, or story that brings us back to what’s important, to rapidly call us back to the vision and values when we seem adrift and confused. No matter where you are in the organization, you can help people define their touchstones and enrich the culture with stories and symbols that provide guidance during difficult times.
As an executive or manager
When working with the concept of organizational courage, it’s important that we start with ourselves first. Fear is a normal human emotion. It can be rational or irrational—it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that suppressing it makes it grow because we’ve never brought it into the light for a good, hard examination. So we just continue to feed the fear and justify its existence.
What are executives and managers afraid of? Beyond the obvious business and personal survival fears, common fears are those of not being good enough, not being needed, losing control, disappointing others, and being “found out” (that one isn’t as good as he/she projects). What’s interesting about fear is that it makes us all believe that we are the only people who have this problem.
Before you can help your employees move past their fears, you must work on yourself first. This requires probing gently and honestly into the depths of your own fears. One technique is to map them down to the deepest possible level and examine what you are really afraid of and why.
Look at what you do that communicates or reinforces fear.
Executives especially can look totally impenetrable to the rest of the organization. Human frailties are masked over by position and title. If you have a strong personality, as most entrepreneurs do, your mere presence can intimidate people and your slightest comment taken as a firm command or reprimand to the affected parties. You may not even know what you do that strikes fear into the hearts of your employees, but fear you they will. So it is up to you to understand how you come across, show your own humanity, and change your behavior. Do you bark orders at your staff? Do you find only mistakes in the work presented to you and forget to praise their efforts? Do you constantly remind them, even in subtle ways, who pays the bills and what they can do if they don’t like it there? Do you shame them for making mistakes? You probably have legitimate concerns about your business, but how you communicate them will dictate the level of fear in your organization.
Help your organization to name and acknowledge its fears.
A lot of fear in organizations is caused by events—mergers, acquisitions, economic downturns, technical innovations, job changes, lawsuits, layoffs, etc. It is critical to get people to verbalize their fears and understand that it’s normal and OK to be afraid. How we act on our fears is what’s important.
Talk to your employees about your own fears and your own choices based on your vision and current reality. Ask them to share theirs. Acknowledge that it is a fearful time and that it is OK to be afraid. Remind them that fear is a normal emotion and that courage means walking with fear, not being fearless.
Give your employees as much information as possible about current reality—even if the outlook is not great. Holding out on them only feeds their fears because they will be convinced that the situation is worse than it is and act accordingly. Treat your employees like adults who can take care of themselves versus children that you need to protect, and you will get a workforce who act like adults.
Organizational courage is attainable, but it’s an inside-out job!
Be personally courageous—modeling courage is the best way to promote it.3
Do you have a management team that can’t seem to get the courage to do what needs to be done? Then you need to show them. Be voracious in your quest to acknowledge and embrace current reality: request and listen to feedback, get a variety of views, challenge your own filters, and admit your own fears. In front of your team, choose and re-choose your vision every day. Every meeting, ask what you need to do, that day, to help realize the vision. Then do it…and let go. 4
Even if the results of your actions are not seen on a daily basis, employees watching you be honest with yourself (and them) and then take appropriate action in spite of fear will be called to act a little more courageously themselves. True courage shines like a beacon and lifts up our spirits, reminding us that we are bound to each other in common humanity.
Organizational courage is an elusive, yet wondrous power. It is a quality that is critical to giving our lives and organizations meaning, and to move us through the upheaval of modern day. Organizational courage is attainable, but it’s an inside-out job!
What are your thoughts and what would you add to this topic? I welcome and look forward to your comments on LinkedIn.
[Editor’s note: This blog post was adapted from an article written by Cathy and published in Minnesota Ventures, Oct. 1991; it was republished in the Minnesota Ventures Growth Guide, May 1993; and has been updated for this blog, April 2019.]
1Walston, S. F. (2010, July 10). Awakening Courageous Leadership. Retrieved from http://www.trainingindustry.com/leadership/articles/awakening-courageous-leadership.aspx
2Taylor, J. (2009, October 21). Business: Why Change is So Hard, and How to Make it Easier. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-power-prime/200910/business-why-change-is-so-hard-and-how-make-it-easier
3Tardanico, S. (2015, January 13). 10 Traits of Courageous Leaders. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/susantardanico/2013/01/15/10-traits-of-courageous-leaders/#263b88ac5104
4Klein, M., & Napier, R. (2003). Transform The Courage to Act: 5 Factors of Courage to Business. Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black.