Courage Is a Muscle. Exercise It.

Most of the things that require leadership bravery aren't big splashy acts.

It’s easy to deceive yourself that your ability to be courageous isn’t an issue for you. In your rational mind, you may avoid stepping into conflict, decisions and speaking truth with (what you believe to be) logic. When self-deception happens, you can miss opportunities to make a difference in your organizations and those you lead.

Think carefully about where you mislead yourself because most of the things that require leaders to exercise courage aren’t big splashy acts; they’re the everyday things you avoid. Some examples and their deceptive self-talk might include:

  • A critical feedback conversation with an employee. Self-talk: “They’ll never change anyway, so why bother?”
  • Making an important decision that might be unpopular. Self-talk: “Nobody will support this decision.”
  • Speaking truth to power. Self-talk: “I will lose my job (the promotion, prestige, a raise) if I call this person out on that.”

Courage is like a muscle. It can be built every day in the small actions you take. One of the best ways to find out where you need to build your own leadership courage is to think about what you are avoiding or putting off. Take a deep breath and then take the first steps toward exercising your courage:

Talk to someone you trust: Do you have a friend, colleague, or coach who listens and asks great open ended questions that can help you think through your fears? Find someone without a vested interest in the fearful thing you need to do, and discuss your options. If they are good at being nonjudgmental, they can help you consider possibilities you may not have thought of. Imagine what it would be like to step into and overcome your fear: What are you doing and saying? How will you show up? How will others see you as you bust through your fear with confidence?

Weigh out the risk-to-benefit ratio: The scenarios that you’ve imagined in your head about how this will play out may be blown out of reasonable proportion. Would you really get fired? Will the others involved really go on a rampage or create the alliance against you that you imagine? Think about the best things and the worst things that can happen when you are successful at being courageous. Somewhere in between you will see realistically and clearly.

Write down the steps you need to take: You’ve advanced this far so you’ve already taken some of the first steps toward gaining the courage you need. Write down a plan for the next steps. Step by step and bit by bit, you’re getting closer to being more fearless. You might even be ready to do what needs to be done.

Now just do it. The next time it will be easier because you’re strengthened your courage muscle. Exercise it regularly on the everyday things that you are fearful of and you’ll be ready – confident and courageous – for the big splashy stuff.

Mary Jo Asmus is an executive coach and a recovering corporate executive who has spent the past 12 years as president of Aspire Collaborative Services, an executive consulting firm.

(Image via fotogestoeber/