Helping others find courage for change

About 8 years ago, I made a decision to close my business and pursue another career, one that I felt would be more fulfilling and rewarding. My business partner was surprised by my decision, and to be fair I think in shock. This wasn’t something that I decided overnight – I grappled with it for months and months. But when I finally took the step and made my decision to change life directions, which took courage, I didn’t fully realise or appreciate the impact of my decision on him.

The difference between my ability to respond to the change brought about by my decision, and the ability of my business partner, was in my mental and emotional preparation for the change. Granted, this still took courage, but I had spent time considering some of the implications this change might bring (although, not all), whereas my partner did not expect it and it came as a shock. And I think it created a kind of pain.  A pain born out of loss, of fear and of resentment for not having the same time to mentally prepare.

If you do a google search on courage and leadership, you will find a large number of results that point you to academic articles, posts on popular business sites like Inc.com and Harvard Business Review, and blogs like this one. Most of what I read when I did this search discussed the traits of leaders that demonstrate courage, or how to live and lead with courage. But not many discussed the impact of taking courage, on others.

I know that taking courage to lead others is mainly an individual endeavour, but how can leaders enable their colleagues and teams to prepare for change and develop their own courage, especially for change they do not know is coming their way?

Courage can come from outside of yourself. Simon Sinek declares in this video that external sources are where courage comes from. I can see his point. We draw strength from others – be it from their kind words or behaviours as examples to emulate, or from investigating consequences of continuing the status quo and whether this matters deeply to us to lead change. These are all valid sources, but I believe in and of themselves these sources are not enough to move us forward to take courage on change. They provide us reasons, and provide us love and comfort when things are hard, but they don’t give us the courage to change and lead others. What this does mean though is that your teams and those you lead will benefit from external sources when they need to find and enact their own courage. You may be that source, or you may set up the conditions in which they can draw strength from each other, or from dedicated time to work on the problems and challenges faced with change. It can serve as an opportunity for those impacted to work through their feelings the change has created, fostering courage to continue towards a different, and ideally a better future.

Courage is derived from your values. Dr Frank Niles has posited a way in which leaders and individuals can move through their fear and take courage for action. He shares that it helps to:

  1. Define your values
  2. Live mindfully
  3. Practice self compassion
  4. Remember past efforts that are similar
  5. Know where your support comes form

Your values may well be different from those that are affected by your courageous action. If others cannot understand what has driven you to make a decision that is tough but important, this will create an imbalance in their hearts and minds, possibly prolonging their pain during the change. Helping create the understanding for your decision, though it may not be liked, will lead to acceptance sooner and unlock the door to individuals finding their inner strength and courage to respond to the new conditions they find themselves in.

According to Dan Millman, absolute vulnerability is critical for leaders to have ready access to their own courage and for others to see the authenticity in which their leader is working to help guide the change. It makes it okay for people to be scared, to be hurting, to feel loss. It doesn’t excuse bad behaviour, but it means others can feel more connected to each other and to you as their leader when they perceive the genuine and authentic way you enact your leadership. Furthermore, it allows you to move through your own emotions as part of taking action, enabling a more self-compassionate approach to courageously taking action.

Courage inspires action, and fuels ongoing efforts, but does not erase or diminish painful feelings stirred up by what that action entails. To the degree in which you can understand the decisions you make that are difficult, that do require courage, and the impact these decisions have on others, this will help you lead more effectively. Pausing to consider the mental readiness of your team and plan accordingly will result in a more compassionate approach to change, and hopefully reduce the pain that others may feel as a result of your courageous action.

Reflection questions

  • Are there particular processes that have helped you, or those you know of, to outline ways to assess options, determine a decision, and manage the feelings and impact of the decision’s outcome?
  • What are the most critical traits of individuals that demonstrate courage that lead to a more resilient approach to taking courage for making or leading change?
  • What resources have you found to help with this process?
  • How do you help others prepare for change and be courageous, especially when the change is a surprise to them?
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