Seize opportunities with courageous leadership

Thought Leadership on Women’s Leadership presented by Grace Killelea, CEO of The GKC Group & Half the Sky Leadership

Who are you and how do you lead? These two questions help define your reputation at work. The answers are crucial to being respected as a leader and helping you discover how to seize opportunities you might normally not consider.

A lack of confidence or belief in ourselves can keep us from telling the truth, taking a risk, or raising our hands. Having a true sense of our own moral and ethical compass and a willingness to stand our ground when necessary is something that can embolden us.

Naturally, being courageous isn’t necessarily something that junior leaders have the opportunity to do. Instead, they’re too busy doing the work they are assigned and just trying to get the lay of the land as they climb the career ladder. But remember: Knowledge is power, and understanding the power of courage can help build a strong foundation for future leadership decisions and opportunities.

At a higher level, senior executives may struggle with leading courageously when they have to talk about difficult topics. In my experience, it often comes down to “truth telling.” Courageous leaders are the ones who are willing to tell people what they need to hear, even if it’s unpopular. As you take this on, keep in mind that diplomacy is key to maintaining your good reputation. There’s a critical difference between being a truth teller and simply being negative. Courageous leaders tell the truth but are thoughtful in the delivery.

Today, courageous leadership is more a necessity than a luxury. Every organization has room for improvement, and many are in real danger of imploding if someone doesn’t step up and be a truth teller. Whether they’re big truths or small ones, they must come from you. Tell the truth, but be diplomatic, knowing that in many cases you may be talking to the person who is, or represents, the problem. For instance, perhaps you’re in a meeting and someone says, “That’s impossible!” You may need to be the person who says, “I understand the challenges seem insurmountable right now, but could we think about this differently?” Or even, “I understand your position on this, but can I invite you to consider this other option?” Such responses politely but firmly refute the idea of impossibility and offer another option for surmounting the challenge, perhaps in a new and unique way.

When you feel strongly about something, courageous leadership defines how you bring that to the forefront. We’re likely to overstep when we feel the most passionate, but courageous leaders know to temper passion with reason for a skeptical audience. What’s more, courageous leaders may be shot down by less courageous higher-ups. Yet even when your ideas are brushed aside, it’s still courageous to be able to say to yourself, “I have stated my case and brought my idea forward. That’s as much as I can do given my position or status in the company.” Then move forward with the final decision and participate fully in the process.

Leading courageously is not the same as leading carelessly — or even cruelly

Courageous leadership is not about telling people that they are always wrong. They’re often wrong, especially when they care less than you do. But leading courageously is about offering solutions, not scolding people. More important, it’s about stating the cases that may be unpopular, but being willing to take a stand when people say that you’re wrong.

I remember being in a meeting of senior-level people once and making a statement about how I felt concerning a topic that was being discussed. The head of the organization vehemently and vocally disagreed with me. My boss at the time didn’t back me up. Instead, he took me aside and warned me to tread lightly.

Through it all, I felt strongly that I was correct. Even though I felt outnumbered and outgunned, I firmly but very respectfully stayed my course. I recall saying, “I am respectfully disagreeing with you and here is why . . . ” Despite my making a clear and logical case, the senior executive still felt he was right, and it was understood that our disagreement was going to impact not only our relationship but perhaps my position as well. But still, I stood my ground. He looked me in the eye and I didn’t break eye contact. He said something to the effect that we would move on to another topic.

It was uncomfortable and it didn’t help matters that he was new to the organization. I could feel my face getting red. After the meeting, however, we continued our conversation. I knew I still needed to stand my ground and also needed to be respectful. But at some point I also had to stop pushing.

I was very respectful in what I said and how I said it, but through it all, I did not acquiesce. I stayed the course. Had I been more junior in my career, even though I might have felt the same way, I might not have had enough credibility to do that. I might have brought it up once and when I felt the mood in the room going south, said, “okay, okay,” and stopped. But I tell the story now because it’s not just about being courageous for the sake of being courageous. True courageous leadership involves taking the temperature of the room and assessing how strong your reputation is in the current situation to determine how far to push an idea or opinion.

You also have to know what your relationship is with the people in the room. I was pretty senior in the company at the time, so I knew I had enough credibility to stand up and hold my ground. I also knew that this executive was going to more seriously consider whatever I had to say after that because of the way I presented my case: factually and rationally.

Be a courageous leader. Let others know you are passionate about the organization, your role in it, and how you can help. Brand yourself as someone who speaks up with confidence and competence, so that you are never caught unprepared. Courage is not about having to be right. It’s about making sure the right conversations are being held at the right time, in the right way.

Read more about confidence and leadership in my book, The Confidence Effect.

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