Sandra Sieb

The Lab: 'How do you lead courageously?' Posts from The Lab


Do you perceive yourself as courageous?

If so, in what context(s)?

When is it difficult for you to be courageous? Why do you think that is?

Where did you learn what ‘courage’ meant? Who showed you?

These are the types of questions we explored a couple weeks ago during our last Lab session, on the topic “How do you lead courageously?”

The aim of these events is to provoke new thoughts and insights for our community of enquiry. And so is the aim of this post.

Let me start by sharing a few moments from the night.

First, we reflected on our respective definitions of courage. It’s always fascinating to see how behind the same word, we all have such different definitions – with such distinct, personal flavours . What’s even more interesting is to see how these definitions are often influenced by our early life experiences.

The evolution of the word ‘courage’ is itself worth mentioning. The Oxford Dictionary defines courage as “The ability to do something that frightens one; bravery” with an additional definition “strength in the face of pain or grief”. Yet, the origin of the word ‘courage’ comes from Latin ‘cor’, which means ‘heart’. As Brene Brown says, “ one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant ‘to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart’.”

From our own conversation, it seems the definition of courage is complex, paradoxical and ultimately very personal.

Is courage about being strong, or being vulnerable?

For some of us, it was a given – courage is indeed about overcoming a fear. Courage is then obviously highly personal, as we all have different fears and anxieties. For some, it will be about overcoming a ‘physical’ fear, (e.g., for me it’s my fear of the waves!) for others it will be about overcoming a more ‘emotional’ one, like the fear of public speaking, for example.

However, for others, courage doesn’t necessarily require the presence of fear. It’s more about choosing the more arduous path in the name of our values and having the perseverance and tenacity to stick to the path we’ve set for ourselves no matter how challenging the journey or the experience might be. As one of the participants beautifully expressed this, courage is “risking something that you want to protect; protecting a value or something that’s within you”.

Reflecting on times when we viewed ourselves as not having been courageous also gave us an interesting perspective. The most common sentiment was that when we’re not courageous, we feel “we’re failing our own standards”, “we can’t look at ourselves in the mirror”. Again, here ‘courage’ felt quite tied to one’s authenticity and deepest values.

Where does your definition of courage come from?

It was interesting also to reflect on where we had learnt what ‘courage’ meant. Although at times hard to pinpoint a specific moment in time, it was clear that many of our definitions came from our childhood, from people who had shaped our life or from the context we grew up in.

Is courage a planned and conscious action or an ‘emergent property’ of a context?

In our reflections, we wondered whether courage was a planned and conscious action, e.g., “I want to become a better public speaker – it’s uncomfortable, but it’s important to me. I will work on it” or if it was an emergent property of the context, as in when you rise to an occasion and without predicting in advance that you will, e.g., rescuing someone from a burning car.

In other words, can you plan to be courageous, or does it only arise in spontaneous contexts that you can’t predict or prepare for?

Who gets to call you courageous?

One question I found particularly interesting was whether it’s possible to perceive, or recognise, oneself as being courageous in the moment. And more generally, can we even talk about ourselves as being courageous, or is it only for others to make that call? But then what happens when their definition of ‘courage’ doesn’t match ours??

Now what about leadership, is courage important for leadership?

Does a leader need to be courageous? It seems we didn’t even need to debate this question! For most of us, courage is at the heart of leadership.

Yet it’s worth reflecting on what courage looks like in an organisational and leadership context.

Tim and I work with a lot of courageous leaders. Based on our direct experience with senior leaders, courage is often required when making decisions. Sometimes courage is about accepting the need to make a difficult decision. Sometimes it’s about accepting uncertainty and accepting the need to leave a question open for a little longer, instead of rushing to find a solution. This is particularly critical with complex challenges which require time for a solution to emerge.

Courageous leaders are also the ones who are comfortable with their own vulnerability – those who can say “I don’t know”. Leaders who can take the more difficult path, who can see – and set aside – their ego for the greater good. Who have the courage to take on the ‘greater responsibility’ instead of acting according to their own self-interests, as one of my dear friends said on the night.

A few questions to help you generate your own inquiry: 

  • What is your definition of courage?
  • Where do you think it comes from? Where did you learn what courage meant? From whom?
  • In what contexts do you see yourself being courageous? Where do you see yourself NOT being courageous?
  • What gets in the way of you being courageous?
  • What do you need, to be courageous?
  • Do you know the signals when you’re holding back and ‘playing it safe’?
  • What do you do when you feel emotionally vulnerable? How do you behave?
  • In what areas would you like to be more courageous? What’s the very first small step you could take to be a bit more courageous, according to your own ideals of ‘courage’?

Let these questions rest with you and see what emerges. Don’t hesitate to share your thoughts and stories with us to continue enriching this conversation.

(Courageously) sharing a bit of my own journey with this inquiry…

What I love about facilitating these events is that it gives me permission to step out of my busy daily life and do some preparatory research to guide our collective enquiry to a deeper reflective place. What I also love about these nights is that they force me to go on my own journey with the topic we set out to explore, and I often land on some powerful insights.

Reflecting on courage for the past few weeks has been a very insightful and confronting inquiry for me…

My model of courage definitely comes from my dad, who not only used to be a fighter pilot in his youth, but also rebelled against his organisation for years. I was conditioned to see courage as an essential value in life. Not surprisingly, this has strongly influenced my everyday life and work. I have a definite bias and over-attachment to MY definition of courage… In any given situation, I will (unconsciously) look for the option that requires the most courage and I will probably often discount other options that might be better suited for the context… I also often have strong reactions to people I see as ‘having no spine’ – words I hear myself saying on a regular basis!

Yet, in these reflections, I have discovered my own lack of courage. Despite my supposedly strong attachment to courage, there are many areas in my life where I’m not courageous. Where I’m failing according to my own standards… There are conversations I am not having, decisions I am not making, actions I am not taking… I am really good at finding very sophisticated reasons for why I behave the way I do. But if I’m honest with myself, they’re all just fears and stories I know all too well...

The other day, my eyes landed on a book called 'The courage to be you', written by a well-known French psychologist, Jacques Salome. I believe this so called ‘having the courage to be ourselves’ is only part of the problem we face as human beings (or at least, that I face…). For me, courage is about accepting myself as I am versus waiting to first become my ideal (and unrealistic!) self. It’s about trusting that who I am is enough for the purpose I see myself having.

So, what now?

Expecting these insecurities to go away anytime soon is not realistic. I’ve supported enough people through emotional journeys to know that the way forward is not to deny these insecurities, nor to expect they will go away, nor to believe that we can ‘figure them out’. The journey forward is to accept these challenging emotions, these stories, as part of who we are, and to make different, more courageous decisions more aligned with our values.

As a parting note, I urge you (and myself) to feel the fear/the anxiety/the discomfort/the pain AND, as Susan Jeffreys says, “do it anyway”…

Thank you to all of those who make these rich inquiry nights possible :). For those of you who wish to be at future inquiries like this, contact myself or Tim Laporte to join our list.


The Lab is a leadership community of enquiry who get together every other month in Sydney and Melbourne. The Lab sessions are invitation-only events, geared towards senior leaders. If you want to join the conversation, drop us a line at [email protected].

Sandra is the co-founder of Leadership Partners and co-facilitate these events with fellow founder Tim Laporte.

This blog is edited by Talia Gill, our brilliant communicator specialist

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