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Generally when we think about courage, we tend to picture heroic gestures, like a lifeguard running into crashing waves to save someone who is drowning. However, courage is not just about excelling at physical challenges or putting your life at risk. It can also mean having the fortitude to say what needs to be said, understanding when and how to do so and also accepting what cannot be changed.
My favourite times of the week is when I volunteer as a Water Safety swimmer for the weekly Nippers sessions at my local surf lifesaving club. Nippers teaches kids age 5-13 how to safely enjoy the surf. One of the key activities is the swim. 100 metres off the beach we set a buoy and simply swim out and back!
Of course, there’s more to it than that. There are distinct zones. Each requires courage to enter. Most kids are comfortable in the shallow water inside the waves. But to get to the buoy, we need to go out of our depth and swim towards the breaking waves. This can be daunting for the kids (and indeed many adults).
At ‘the break’, where the waves crash into us, there are cries of “over” or “under” as we decide which way to keep moving through the roaring walls of water. We are fighting the fear of being out of our depth, being smashed by the waves and of venturing further into the ocean.
Logic tells us that the further ‘out’ we go, the greater the danger. Instinct tells us to turn back to ‘safety’. But we teach the kids to “swim hard”. You see, once you are beyond the break, everything changes. The water is calm. The rips are gone. It’s a beautiful place.
I usually swim with one of the less confident kids, helping them to keep going – out of their depth, through the break and, finally, out the back. We ‘high five’ the buoy – our Everest! As we do, I always get the kids to look back – to see how far they have come. Their sense of achievement is wonderful. Courage is rewarded!
This is a metaphor for so many facets of our lives – at home and work. In a competitive and stressful world, we too must strive to achieve. We too need to get to the buoy! We need to be courageous.
Either you decide to stay in the shallow end of the pool or you go out in the ocean.
Courage refers to the ability of a person to face difficult circumstances despite being fearful.
In the centre of our brain, two small structures called amygdala are believed to control our fear responses. New research suggests that other parts of our brain also play a part. Given how big a part fear can play in our lives, how we can influence these mechanisms is the subject of much study.
From a leadership perspective, the fear drivers that perhaps keep us alive in a survival context can be misplaced ‘at work’. Defensiveness and other reactions can damage relationships and affect collaboration.
The SCARF model, developed by Dr. David Rock identifies five domains: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. Each can be triggers for our fear-based reactions to people and situations. Awareness of these is a good start when thinking through interactions and leading in a way that minimises the threat response.
When things go wrong, looking at the bigger picture, working out a new solution and redirecting efforts while letting go of self-doubt depends on an inner ability, called ‘self-efficacy’ – a term coined by American psychologist Albert Bandura. In our ever-changing and unpredictable world, this is an powerful leadership quality.
Self-efficacy is a new paradigm. Older leadership models often employed a much more fear-based element, using secrecy and punishment to maintain ‘control’. Relying on threats and consequences is an ineffective approach – particularly with younger workers. Flipping this, to accept failure as a necessary and valuable part of the contemporary business process is far more effective. Believing in your people, encouraging and resourcing them to perform is smart business. Fear-based strategies simply do not work in our agile and unpredictable environments.
Many managers get stuck in repeating patterns. They try to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s approaches, often misunderstanding how the context has shifted. These habits are often embedded in culture and processes, making it hard for new ideas to be tested.
Breaking this cycle takes real courage. It’s the courage to take on the status quo, to go against often more senior nay-sayers and to influence those around you to also step into the unknown. To date, neuroscience has few answers to how we can offset this inhibitory process.
As leaders, we must work hard to bust this cycle. It is the essence of leading change. It requires us to understand that each team member is likely to have a different response to change. We need to be intelligent about how we encourage and challenge, but we also need to be persistent.
Succeeding in our VUCA world is largely about how well and quickly we can create change-agile teams. That’s people who relish a challenge and are able to experiment and adapt to opportunities and threats with a smile. A great way to develop this capability is to set a vision and inspire action. As Dale Carnegie observed:
Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.
Courage is a new leadership currency. It is complex. We need to summon our courage and then think how we can best deploy it to generate the team and business outcomes we need. It’s also deeply personal. It calls on our emotions and vulnerability. As Dr. Brené Brown said,
In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant:
To speak one's mind by telling all one's heart.
But this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences - good and bad. Speaking from our hearts is what I think of as ordinary courage.
Mark Hodgson comes from an international corporate leadership background. He is one of our i4 Partners and runs his own leadership practise. A natural disruptor, he helps executives and consultants to position themselves as leading influencers. He also volunteers as a Telephone Crisis Support worker for Lifeline.
Mark is an Executive Coach, keynote Speaker and the Author. His first book is: ‘Time to Shine: Adapting who you are and what you know to succeed in the ideas economy’.