Courageous leadership

A few weeks ago, on Twitter, @jac060199 asked for thoughts on, and reading about, courage in leadership.  I recently read Brene Brown’s ‘Dare to Lead’, which has much to say on the subject, and I have also been aware of how much bold, strong leadership has been in evidence throughout the last four months, as leaders at all levels have stepped up to the challenge of navigating their teams, their schools and groups of schools through the COVID-19 crisis.

The word ‘fearless’ always gives me pause, as I firmly believe that courage is not about the absence of fear, but about how we deal with fear.  Feeling afraid is natural, and there has been much to feel frightened about in the first six months of 2020 – fear and anxiety about our physical health, the health and safety of those we love and have responsibility for, and also the fear of getting it wrong – of making the wrong decisions and choices in the current climate.

Courageous leaders do, of course, get it wrong and make mistakes – as we all do.  The bolder you are, perhaps, the more likely you are to get it wrong because you are prepared to take action, and there will always be an element of risk in that.  But being courageous involves doing what you feel to be right, rather than what might be easy or comfortable.  There are no guarantees, especially in these extraordinary times when we face circumstances we could not have anticipated and for which we cannot possibly be adequately prepared.  Courageous leaders have continued to ‘show up’, as Brene would say, to do the work and to try their best.

I was aware when I became a head that if I made a mistake it tended to be very public and obvious, because of the nature of the role, but I quickly learnt that those you lead do not expect you to be infallible.  They do expect you to be honest, and to learn from experience so that you don’t make the same mistake multiple times.  I never had a problem with apologising, reflecting and being determined to do better in the future.  I would make other mistakes, but I hoped they would be different ones…

I remember once being asked as a delegate at a conference the question, ‘How confident are you?’ and to grade our responses.  Although I do believe myself to be a generally confident person (sometimes dangerously over-confident, I will admit!), having thought about the question, my response was, ‘It depends…’  I think we are all more confident in some circumstances rather than others.  Professionally I have felt reasonably confident throughout my career, and that confidence has built with experience.  But even within the professional sphere I am, for example, more confident talking about educational leadership than about some other elements of education.  And I would not describe myself as confident in the kitchen (my husband is the cook in our relationship), when the car develops a fault or when the computer responds in an unexpected way to a command I have given successfully numerous times before.

Courage is, I think, the same.  In certain contexts I suspect we find it easier to show courage, to step up, to do the right thing.  What might help?

  • We may find it easier to be courageous if we are acting with others, rather than alone.  Can we support and bolster each other when courage is called for?  Networks can help here, and #WomenEd, with its 10% Braver motto, has been a good example of this.
  • Knowing that others have faith in us, and our capacity to respond with courage, can help.  It is far easier to have confidence in ourselves if we know others, whose opinions we respect, have confidence in us.  Coaching and mentoring can help us to build the self-belief we need to act with conviction and to be bold when it is required of us.
  • Positive self-talk may be necessary, as we confront imposter syndrome and replace the little voice asking “Are you sure you can?” with the more assured “Of course you can!”  We need to recognise that if all does not go as planned, it may not be totally disastrous if we learn from the experience and have additional feedback which will help us in the future.  Andy Buck talks in ‘The BASIC coaching method’ of the usefulness of conducting a ‘pre-mortem’ to explore what could go wrong, and how we might respond if it did.  But this needs to make us feel better prepared and more confident about taking the plunge, rather than terrifying and deterring us completely!
  • Reminding ourselves of our values, priorities and principles (our ‘why?’) can bolster us and increase our determination to see through something which may require courage but which we know is well worthwhile.
  • Reflecting on where we have behaved courageously in the past, what we have achieved and the progress which has been made as a result can strengthen us.  We may be facing something we have never faced before, but reminding ourselves that we have faced unknown challenges in the past, and survived them, can boost our resolve.
  • Reading and giving thought to others’ experience of, and views about, courage can also be useful.  Sue Cowley wrote a chapter on ‘10% braver: Feel the fear and do it anyway’ in the first #WomenEd book; having read that chapter, Rachel Ball reflects on her thoughts about courage, and useful tips for those who need to build it, here; and Susan Ritchie discusses here showing courage in our career decisions and professional practice.

If you have further thoughts about courage, or practical advice about strategies which you have found helpful as you have faced challenges which required you to show boldness and strength, please share them in the comments below?

Many thanks for reading.

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3 thoughts on “Courageous leadership

  1. A great blog; many of us leaders may not feel ‘fearless’ but very ‘fearful’ over the events of the past few months! However, putting children and staff wellbeing at the core of our decision making has enabled us to act with integrity to lead our schools through these unchartered times. It has been humbling as a Head to work with such an amazing team of SLT, teachers , other staff and parents to give the children a sense of security and calm to continue their education albeit at home or at school with a sense of fun and routine. No matter what the journey ahead has in store it is clear and honest communication and community that will keep us all buoyant.


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