Courage, leadership, and your emotional intelligence

A father and son play in a field at sunset, wearing their capes and acting out superhero-hood!

Courage is commonly thought of in the context of an incredible act of bravery, or overcoming extreme adversity or risk. In everyday life, we might think of courage as getting up in the night to see if the noise we heard is actually an intruder, standing up to a bully, or climbing Mt. Everest. But why is courage critical for leadership?

Courage is not just about superheroes; it is personal and is found in everyday interactions and situations. It is the willingness to face agony, pain, intimidation or uncertainty, even when we are reluctant or fearful. It is the capacity to persist even when things are difficult. Some of us fear conflict and yet, we find the courage to have difficult conversations. Others would prefer to avoid intimacy or personal connection, but rather than flee, freeze or flop, we step into the relationship. Courage is telling the truth even though the backlash by disbelievers could leave a lifetime impact. Courage is also about being our authentic selves, embracing our imperfections and being comfortable with who we are, despite potential judgement, criticism and our own saboteurs.

Why is courage an essential component of leadership?

First, let me say that, even though we tend to think of leaders in terms of organizational or political hierarchies, we are all leaders in the context of our own lives. When we give leadership this broader, more inclusive meaning, we are inviting each of us to accept responsibility for our own lives and our impact on others. It is such a courageous and empowering step to take ownership of our circumstances and actions, rather than making others responsible. It frees us from feeling victimized and gives us hope that we can change and grow.

Most of what we face as leaders is not dangerous, but it can be intimidating and uncertain. Checking out a strange noise in the night is potentially dangerous, but holding someone accountable for their work performance creates uncertainty. Asking for accountability can be very uncomfortable. We don’t know how they’re going to react. It might take less courage to look the other way and avoid the uncertainty inherent in difficult conversations, but we know it’s important to have that conversation anyway. Courage is making a significant change by stepping out of what’s comfortable, even though you can’t know the outcome. Courage is setting a boundary with a person who has positional power over you, even when you know there are potential risks.

Even though we tend to think of leaders in terms of organizational or political hierarchies, we are all leaders in the context of our own lives.

Feeling courageous is not about feeling bullet-proof. It’s about feeling fear, caution, worry or anxiety and then deciding how these emotions inform our action. Do our emotions tell us to protect ourselves from risk that is too great? Do we acknowledge that our emotions are telling us something important and proceed to action accordingly? Or do we tell our saboteur, our critic, to back off so that we can learn something valuable about our capacity, our resilience and our courage. What would a courageous leader do?

Most of us have stood at the fork in the road: one path or decision represents greater risk and greater reward and the other is the more familiar, safer choice. How many times have we shown courage by doing what is right even though it meant drawing unwanted attention to ourselves or creating unwanted complexity? How many times have we chosen to step up to do what was needed even when it was challenging or there were potential negative consequences? How many of us have admired and respected a leader who took a stand based on values and integrity rather than profit or power?

How do courage and leadership fit into emotional intelligence

Courage and leadership have everything to do with emotional intelligence (EI). Emotional intelligence is an awareness of our emotions and how they influence our actions. Emotions  provide ever-present information about ourselves, our relationship with others and our environment. Courage is action, but it is also about our response to our emotions – fear, confidence, excitement, caution, etc.

At EITC, we use the MHS model of emotional intelligence, the basis for the Emotional Quotient Inventory (EQ-i 2.0), which views EI as a set of emotional skills that are learned. The EQ competencies in the model that relate most to courage include:

  • Self-Regard (confidence and resilience);
  • Emotional Self-Awareness (understanding how your emotions influence your actions);
  • Assertiveness and Independence (being willing and able to take a stand and express it, even if your view isn’t shared by others);
  • Stress Tolerance (managing conflict and coping with challenges);
  • Self-Actualization (driven by meaning and a sense of purpose); and
  • Empathy (paying attention to others’ feelings for greater connection).

Leadership is about the decision to take risks and do the right thing, even when we are afraid and no matter the consequences. Are you involved in what has meaning and purpose for you? How does this give you the courage to step into challenges, to pursue innovation, to stay aligned with your purpose and achieve your goals? Leaders pay attention to their feelings because emotions provide critical information. That takes courage because there are messages we don’t want to hear. Leaders do not shy away from situations because they are stressful or because they might make others uncomfortable. They face agony, pain, danger or intimidation as a way to show up. And that takes courage.

Are you a leader? Yes, because you lead your own life and you impact others. What kind of leader do you aspire to be? Are you willing to be courageous? Learn to have the courage to face what is difficult, challenging, and uncertain and it will be the best leadership decision you ever make.


A version of this article was first published at People Talk.

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