Courage: An Essential Characteristic of Successful Executives & Executive Coaches

The path to success is wrought with courageous decisions. However, only a small portion of the American population believes that they are courageous (Hiscox). How can the executive coaches of today encourage the development of courage in their clients? What are the benefits of having a courageous mindset and what do courageous people do?



“Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.” - Peter Drucker

What courage is

Courage is a characteristic of antiquity. It is present in the earliest human writings like the epic stories of Greek heroes. Aristotle considered courage an essential characteristic for the continuation of family lineages and the development of a “rich life” (Putman, 2010). Researchers have found that courage can be learned over time and through experiences. However, the personality of an individual can also affect the amount of courage one possesses (Gruber, 2011).


Courage lies between the extremes of “cowardice” and rash “carelessness” and has been defined as the “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty” (Putman, 2010, Merriam-Webster, n.d.). Courage pushes people to achieve their goals, despite the obstacles they may face. It is a driving force that leads people to success, regardless of the hardships. Courage takes what seems impossible and makes it possible.


“Courage doesn’t mean you don’t get afraid. Courage means you don’t let fear stop you.” -Bethany Hamilton

What courage is not

When discussing courage, it is important to note that courage is not reckless “carelessness” in the face of adversity (Putman, 2010). Courage is not the ignorance of challenges, but the acknowledgment of challenges. Courage is strategic, not randomized or last-minute. Courageous people address their challenges directly, refusing to walk blindly into the future. Courage is not fueled by “fear,” “expertise,” or “overconfidence.” Instead, it is the knowledgeable movement forward, with the challenges ahead in mind (Putman, 2010).


“Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision…” Winston Churchill

Benefits of courage

In today’s industrialized world, courage still has an important role in success. The following are benefits that business leaders and CEOs can glean from the development of courage. When executive coaches work with their clients in courage development, they can expect to see the following results in their clients’ businesses and careers.


Benefits for the executive coach

Courage can greatly benefit today’s executive coaches. It takes courage to ask powerful questions that inspire change. It takes courage to continually challenge oneself to always be learning new coaching techniques and strategies. Executive coaches must have courage when taking on the responsibility of leading an executive through their challenges and to their goals. Without courage, powerful questions go unasked and executives remain unchanged.


“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” - Anais Nin

Benefits for the executive


Boldness to take calculated risks. Courage gives business leaders the initiative to take calculated risks. What others would deem as risky, courageous business leaders instead calculate the risks, benefits, and make decisions that are impactful for their organizations. Bill George, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School, explains that “it takes bold decisions to build great global companies. If businesses are managed without courageous leadership, then R&D programs, product pipelines, investments in emerging markets, and employees’ commitment to the company’s mission all wither” (2017). It takes courage to have the boldness to act on calculated risks for the good of a corporation.


Increased resiliency. Courage gives business leaders the resiliency to withstand and overcome hardships and challenges. The central theme of courage: facing challenges head-on and achieving goals nonetheless, is immensely helpful when faced with the challenges that often come with running a business (Gavin, 2020).


Increased clarity. Leaders who are courageous have a greater sense of clarity, or a vision for the goals they want to achieve (Eades, 2021). Business leaders and CEOs with courage do not readily change their goals in the face of challenges. Instead, they face challenges head-on and maintain their original goal when possible. This goal continuity increases the clarity that the employees and stakeholders of the business leader’s organization have as well. This sense of clarity ultimately benefits each level of the business leader’s company.


“The courage of leadership is giving others the chance to succeed even though you bear the responsibility for getting things done.” - Simon Sinek

Inspiring leadership. Courage emboldens leaders to inspire their employees to do their best (Trotta, n.d.). It takes courage to push people to their full potential. Executive leaders must face the potential fear of offending or upsetting employees when their performance is poor. Doing this takes courage on the leader’s part, but inspires change and better performance for the employee.


Feedback appreciation. Feedback can be challenging for a business leader to accept. When business leaders have courage, they see feedback as a way to improve their business or leadership. (Trotta, n.d.). Without courage, feedback can be seen as a threat to performance or character. It takes courage to accept that there are ways one can improve. When business leaders have this courage, they have the ability to see the ways that they can improve according to given feedback.


“Courage is being scared to death...and saddling up anyway.” - John Wayne

Stories of courage

Business leaders and executive coaches act with courage every day. Consider the following stories of courage and how they have changed lives, impacted businesses, and developed today’s greatest leaders.


Don Meyer’s courageous curiosity

In episode 1034 of the Arete Coach Podcast, Severin Sorensen and Don Meyers discuss the importance of asking powerful questions. Don shares in this discussion that he always strives to stay in a state of curiosity and courage. Don states that “sometimes I have to be courageous to be curious.” The best executive coaches stay curious and have the courage to act on that curiosity through insightful questions. It takes courage to ask the difficult but necessary questions that inspire and lead to change. Don Meyers has embraced this challenge of courage in his coaching practice. This courageous curiosity has led him to great success in the executive coaching field and inspired his clients to excel in their careers.


Alan Mulally’s strategic courage

When Mulally started working with Ford, the organization was losing $18 billion that year, but remained “unwilling to address its fundamental issues.” To repair some of these fundamental issues, Mulally borrowed $23.5 billion “convincing the Ford family to pledge its stock and the famous Ford Blue Oval as collateral.” With this borrowed money, he retooled “Ford’s entire product line” and automated the factories. Alan Mulally showed strategic courage in the face of a financial challenge. He had his goal, analyzed the risk, and overcame the financial obstacles. Mulally’s “bold move paid off.” When other Detroit competitors filed for bankruptcy, Ford “avoided bankruptcy, regained market share, and returned to profitability” because of the strategic courage of Alan Mulally (George, 2017).


Yiselle M. Dipiní Andreu’s courage despite the storm

Yiselle is the co-founder and CEO of StageBoom, a booking platform for musicians. She started her company with her co-founder Charlie Fuentes in Puerto Rico. When Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, Yiselle’s business was put in jeopardy. All the bookings that clients had were canceled, and the financial ramifications of the hurricane were massive. Instead of cutting their losses and throwing in the towel, Yiselle and Charlie hosted their first concert via StageBoom without any electricity less than three weeks after the hurricane. This concert was dedicated to “giving relief to Puerto Ricans after the hurricane” and served as a financial boost to their community. Yiselle and her team displayed great courage in the face of a physical and financial storm. By having the courage to strategically organize how to continue their business despite challenges, Yiselle has led a successful business and supported her community in doing so (Zipkin, 2018).


Indra Nooyi’s courage to change

Indra became the CEO of Pepsi in 2016. As she led this company she noticed the upcoming trend of focusing on healthier snacks and beverages. Despite being a primarily soft-drink-focused company, Indra made several organizational changes that supported PepsiCo’s development in the healthy snack category. In 2013, Indra was challenged to split the company, but she remained courageous and continued to invest in the change she had started. PepsiCo’s rival Coca-Cola however, did not invest in change. “As a result, Coca-Cola’s performance has consistently lagged PepsiCo’s.” Because of the strategic and courageous changes that Indra made, PepsiCo’s stock has increased by 70% while their competitor, Coca-Cola, has only had a 15% increase (George, 2017).


“Courage is contagious.” - Billy Graham

How coaches can inspire courage

Clearly, courage has a massive impact on executive coaches and business leaders alike. But how can courage be developed? In what ways can executive coaches harness the power of courage and help their clients be courageous as they lead their businesses?


Be an example

Having the courage to ask difficult questions and dive into the challenges that are often ignored, can be a great example of courage to an executive coach’s client. As executive coaches lead their clients down a path of discovery, they learn that they can face their fears and challenges head-on, conquering their fears and also developing courage.


Discuss what courage means

Courage is often misunderstood as the absence of fear (Yeung, 2015). However, it is actually the continuation despite fear. Instead of giving in to fear, courageous individuals “acknowledge that feeling and yet still move” forward with strategy and plan (Yeung, 2015). By intentionally discussing what courage means to a client, executive coaches can correct common courage misconceptions and lead the client to a greater understanding of what true courage is and why it is important for a leader to develop.


“Courage is like a muscle; it is strengthened by use.” - Ruth Gordon

Plan for courage

Practice makes perfect. When executive coaches and their clients identify areas of the client’s career that need courage, both the client and the coach can make an small-step action plan that emphasizes the growth of courage. These baby steps of courage can surmount great change in business leaders’ own tendency to be courageous, ultimately benefiting their careers, their businesses, and their employees (Yeung, 2015).


Identify values

A key component of having courage is having a reason to be courageous. “Courageous action is primarily motivated towards a worthy purpose” (Hammerman, 2009). A courageous person knows their values, has their goals, and uses their courage to help them attain their goals. When executive coaches help their clients identify what their values are and how these values attribute to their goals, they are taking steps towards courage development.


The main takeaway

Courage is an essential characteristic of the successful executive coach and business leader. It is what encourages leaders to push through challenges despite their fears and achieve their greatest successes. Business leaders and executive coaches alike gain many benefits from courage such as boldness and resiliency. These benefits can have great positive impacts on an executive’s businesses and leadership skills. Because of these benefits, executive coaches are encouraged to guide their clients through the development of their own courage.


“Courage is the most important of all virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” -Maya Angelou

References

Eades, J. (2021, March 11). Why Courage Is The Key To Great Leadership. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/why-courage-key-great-leadership-john-eades/

Gavin, M. (2020, March 03). 5 Characteristics of a Courageous Leader: HBS Online. Retrieved from https://online.hbs.edu/blog/post/courageous-leadership


George, B. (2017, April 24). Courage: The Defining Characteristic Of Great Leaders. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/hbsworkingknowledge/2017/04/24/courage-the-defining-characteristic-of-great-leaders/?sh=19e6594511ca


Gruber, C. (2011). The Psychology of Courage: Modern Research on an Ancient Virtue. Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, 45(2), 272-279. doi:10.1007/s12124-011-9155-x


Hammerman, T. (2009). Encouraging Courage. Clinical Science Insights Knowledge Families Count On, 10.


Hiscox, & Forbes. (n.d.). Hiscox-American Courage Index Winter 2016 Update (Rep.). doi:https://www.hiscox.com/documents/Hiscox-American-Courage-Index.pdf


Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Courage. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/courage


Putman, D. (2010). Philosophical roots of the concept of courage. The Psychology of Courage: Modern Research on an Ancient Virtue., 9-22. doi:10.1037/12168-001


Trotta, J. (n.d.). Why Courage Matters: Six Lessons for Leaders. Retrieved from https://emergenetics.com/blog/why-courage-matters-six-lessons-for-leaders/


Yeung, K. (2015, May 12). Research Paper: Courage. Retrieved from https://coachcampus.com/coach-portfolios/research-papers/kathryn-yeung-courage/


Zipkin, N. (2018, May 11). 3 Women Entrepreneurs Share Their Stories of Courage, Community and Innovation 8 Months After Hurricane Maria. Retrieved from https://www.entrepreneur.com/slideshow/313249

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