Leading teams to embrace courage at work

Leaders who show vulnerability in turn nurture courage in their teams, says Sue Stockdale, and that prepares them for the unknown

When a coaching client of mine explained that he wanted his team to be more innovative, I raised the topic of courage with him. The leader believed that they were holding back on sharing their ideas, and he felt a sense of apathy in his team. As he described the situation, I asked him to reflect on what he thought would inspire the team members to speak up and express their ideas? Suddenly he realised that he was the blocker. Often, he responded too quickly with yes…but… or did not allow them to try out what they suggested. It was his own fear and lack of courage that was holding the team back. 

Being courageous enables any of us to respond to the unknown, face uncertainty, or to take risks despite the discomfort. It is a key part of a leader’s role to encourage their teams to embrace courage because it can lead to a stronger culture of trust, openness, and engagement. But to do that the leader must walk their talk – which for many is uncomfortable.

The most important element of personal growth for a leader, according to leadership coach John Mattone, is having the courage to be vulnerable. ‘Ultimately, your greatness as a leader,’ he says, ‘has nothing to do with you – it has to do with the people whose lives you touch. I regularly get phone calls from leaders who want to be more successful, and I always explain that there is no shortage of intellect in most organisations, but what we are short of is leaders who use their heart and soul to inspire others. That requires vulnerability.’

‘What we are short of is leaders who use their heart and soul to inspire others. That requires vulnerability.’

Many leaders equate vulnerability with weakness, but they are different. Many leaders, not wanting to appear “weak,” spend their lives avoiding and protecting themselves from feeling vulnerable or being perceived as too emotional. Vulnerability is about acknowledging truth and showing courage. Also, vulnerability isn’t about saying whatever we want and oversharing indiscriminately. Vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them. Being vulnerable and open is mutual and integral in the process of building trust in relationships and as the leader of a team, that is vital to cultivate.

Mattone says ‘If a leader is not willing to raise their hand and acknowledge “I’m pretty good in these areas, but I know I’ve got things to work on,” there’s no way they can instigate growth and trust within their team.’

Being vulnerable

Mattone explains that every time he meets with a client, he shares a little bit of his personal story, talking about the highs and lows that he has experienced. He explains: ‘I learnt a lot between age 30 and 40 years old. I was driven by my ego but when I looked at the financial results, it was not working. So, I went back into the corporate world for fifteen years. I learned so much as a Vice President of Sales. I got fired twice, I got laid off, and on one occasion I got fired just before Christmas when I was 48 years old, with my family relying on me. So, it has not been all successful. By sharing this story, Mattone role models courage and vulnerability.

Mattone also cites an example of a client called Armando, whom he worked with in Mexico City. As part of the coaching process, Armando stood up in front of his team of eighteen and said: ‘l can’t become the best leader I can be without your help, so I want to give you the highlights of what I’m working on, and if you want to come and give me your feedback later that will be great.’ Armando went through the areas he planned to work on, with conviction and pride, and at the end his team gave him a standing ovation. Armando was deeply moved to the point of tears. Afterwards he said, ‘I can never let these people down, ever.’ Mattone believes that this was true vulnerability being demonstrated there in front of everyone, and in turn brought the team closer together and showed what true courage was to that team.

The workplace now is becoming more human and working from home has helped in some ways. We are more accepting when a delivery person arrives, or a pet or a child appears on a conference call. Leaders have become more real.

According to Brené Brown in her book Daring Greatly, vulnerability is ‘uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure,’ but it is also, ‘the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity.’ So, if a leader wants to encourage others to embrace courage, they need to operate from a place of trust, where both parties can ‘allow themselves to be seen.’ Maybe a glimpse into a leader’s homeworking space, with the messy bookshelf behind them, or seeing them wearing their favourite casual t-shirt unconsciously enables us all to practice being courageous.

Sue Stockdale is an executive coach and leadership specialist.

Sue Stockdale

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