How to Encourage a Culture of Courage

Courage isn't an inherent quality—it can be trained. Here's how to make it a habit on your team.

Courage is doing the right thing in the face of opposition. Sometimes that’s physical: saving someone in danger. Sometimes it’s moral: speaking up for the rights of someone who isn’t getting heard. And sometimes it’s psychological: facing the bad situation head on, instead of pretending it doesn’t exist.

Whatever the context, courage is what makes a leader. If you aren’t willing to stick your neck out from time to time, you are not a leader. Full stop.

But it’s also not enough. Many of the leaders we’ve worked with recently have realized how critical it is to build a courageous culture, in which everyone has the opportunity—and responsibility—to speak up, to do the right (if difficult!) thing. Researchers have divided company culture into three categories: 

  • Fearful cultures, which are highly reactive and do not lead their space
  • Bureaucracies, where the rules are followed, right or wrong
  • Courageous companies, where people took ethical and strategic stances, expecting opposition

Courageous companies were market leaders and engendered the most trust among their customers—and they also had cultures where managers promoted psychological safety, reducing fear of retribution within, so that people could concentrate on their common ethical goals. 

The good news is that courage is actually a trait that you can increase, not just an inherent quality that you either do or don’t have. Psychological studies of heroes, for instance, have found that they have one thing in common: most had special training that enabled them to manage risk and succeed where others had failed. However, all the heroes felt that anyone would have done what they did. From their point of view, they saw what was happening, and made the choice to respond, rather than look away. As Jerry Garcia said, “Somebody’s gotta do something, and it’s pathetic that it has to be us.”

If you want to encourage courage at your organization:

  • Make thinking about ethics part of your team’s cultural habits. Bring thinking about values, strategies and even overs into your daily routine.  
  • Make the choice. Look back at times you have acted courageously. Acting on our values requires us to live with fear, but it ultimately gives us more ease and confidence in the world. 
  • Notice the difference between reluctance and well-founded fear. Your body can give you useful cues. Reluctance is when you hesitate to do the right thing, so you avoid and delay. When fear is well-founded, it makes you bolt from the situation.
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