Courageous Communication

Courageous CommunicationI believe courage is one of the pillars of effective leadership. There are many ways courage is critical as a leader, but the most common place I see leaders lack courage is in communication. Courageous communication means speaking up for what’s right, guiding others when they are off track, and saying what needs to be said, despite being afraid to say it.

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
—Nelson Mandela

When I was working as head of content for a tech company, Rick, a product leader, was giving me feedback on some UX language my team had created. This feedback took place over the period of a few days. The first day, he came to my office and said something like, “I love the new language you and your team created for the search results and the 404 pages. I think if you can tweak the copy on the 404 pages a bit, if you think it needs any refining, that would be cool.”

I somehow did not get the message that he and the whole team hated the messaging my team created for the 404 pages. The same language appeared in the mockups the next day, with some minor changes. We had some version of this conversation again and again, and I wasn’t getting the problem, until the end of the week, when our Chief Product Officer asked me why I hadn’t scrapped the whole idea and started over with a new direction. “Hadn’t Rick told you?”

No, he hadn’t. Be he had tried to. Rick had been sugarcoating his feedback, which is when you bury the lead underneath a pile of niceties – so much so that the main message is not actually delivered, received, or understood. Using Kim Scott’s terminology, it’s a result of ruinous empathy, or prioritizing care at the expense of candor.

Sugarcoating feedback only leads to frustration and confusion on both sides. People want to get it right, generally. I know I wanted to get the copy right. You don’t give people a chance to get it right if you can’t say what needs to be said in a direct and effective manner. The clear and kind thing to do in this case would have been to tell it to me straight, and as soon as possible.

If it’s so counterproductive, why do some leaders sugarcoat their messages, or otherwise lack the necessary candor their communication needs? There are countless nuanced reasons for this, but most come down to fear.

And what is the antidote to fear?

Courage.

This is why I often refer to feedback conversations as courageous communication. Your willingness to step into an uncomfortable conversation because you care about another person’s success is a sign of honesty, respect, and care – even if the feedback stings in the short term. It’s a sign of courage.

Leadership Requires Courage

What is courage? Courage is simply the ability to do something that scares you. Ask the cowardly lion from the classic tale, The Wizard of Oz. He is scared of everything that crosses his path, including his own tail. He dreams of a better life, if he were the fearless king of the forest. But he learns that courage comes when he faces his fears. It wasn’t the fear he had to remove – that would be impossible. It was his response to the fear and the way he let it control him. Once he learns that courage is the ability to move forward in the face of fear, he is able to exhibit courage.

There is a myth that the most courageous among us are fearless, especially in leadership. The truth is that courage can only exist alongside fear. If you were fearless, why would you need courage at all? Life would be easy and steady, without much chance of risk – and also without much chance of growth.

“There is no growth without discomfort.”
—Abhijit Naskar

Leadership and risk-taking go hand in hand. Inherent in risk taking is uncertainty, which is something that many people try to minimize at all costs. Leaders need courage to lean into that fear and discomfort. To initiate a project without knowing whether or not it will succeed. To make a decision that is necessary but will be unpopular. To pivot on an idea you previously voted against. To vocalize and champion an idea that is irreverent. Leadership is about doing the hard things and taking the risks others won’t take.

Courage is required if you are to face fear, discomfort, and risk in the domain of leadership. Ginni Rometty, the first female CEO at IBM, said, “Growth and comfort never coexist.” She continued, “Embrace discomfort because it means you’re learning something.”

As leaders, we must face fear in multiple contexts, which means courage is also required in multiple contexts. Here are just three common ones: facing the unknown, embracing vulnerability, and leaning into feedback.

Facing the Unknown

If you are a leader in an organization of any kind today, you will experience uncertainty almost daily. People try to find stability, tranquility, efficiency, and answers in states of permanent uncertainty and are stressed when they can’t find solid ground to stand on. Our brains crave certainty, and any form of uncertainty, whether we’re conscious of it or not, triggers fear (a.k.a. stress). When uncertainty overwhelms us, a common response is to freeze and revert back to certainty to provide more comfort. Uncertainty can lead to people to make cowardly decisions just to increase their familiarity and comfort levels – to reach for options where factors are known.

The problem is today’s world is also full of volatility: surprises, novel problems, complex and interdependent systems. It’s also essentially void of answers. If you are a leader of any kind — responsible for a team, family, community, or organization — you know firsthand how much uncertainty can affect people. It’s your job to help others through the groundlessness, to show courage in the face of uncertainty, no matter how scary it is for you, too.

Simply put, you must increase your tolerance of the unknown. No matter how unpredictable your organizational climate is, you have the power and influence — and responsibility — to catalyze a sense of stability and confidence for yourself and those around you.

As leader, you have to not only embrace your own discomfort, but make space for the discomfort of those who work for and with you. You must cultivate the skill of holding, tolerating, and easing the uncertainty and discomfort of those around you.

The longer you are in a leadership role, the more courage you will need to navigate the discomfort of the unknown – both yours and others.

Embracing Vulnerability

Another area that requires courage is vulnerability, an important ingredient for leadership and communication. Many of the leaders I work with shy away from vulnerability. For most people in our society, vulnerability doesn’t come naturally, it requires courage, particularly if you find vulnerability anxiety-inducing like I do.

Vulnerability can look like owning your role in an error, perhaps admitting you aren’t great at delegating or establishing standards, which played into why the deadline was missed, the expectations went unmet, or the quality was poor. It can look like sharing a time you made a related mistake, or admitting you don’t have the perfect answer or solution but want to work on it together. Leaders are humans and in order to be in healthy relationships as humans, we must be vulnerable to build that trust.

Brené Brown wrote in her book The Power of Vulnerability, “In our culture, we associate vulnerability with emotions we want to avoid such as fear, shame, and uncertainty. Yet we too often lose sight of the fact that vulnerability is also the birthplace of joy, belonging, creativity, authenticity, and love.” Vulnerability is an accelerator when you want to truly connect with the person you are communicating with.

Leaning into Feedback

Finally, giving and receiving feedback require courage. In fact, I would say the greatest obstacle to giving and receiving feedback is fear — both fear of uncertainty and fear of vulnerability. Even when we know we have to discuss something with someone, the uncertainty and potential discomfort in how they’ll react is enough to avoid the feedback altogether. And when you don’t know what kind of feedback someone has for you, the fear of vulnerability may cause you to shy away from asking for it. Fear stops feedback in both directions.

This is where courage is required.

In two-way communication, there will inherently be higher degrees of uncertainty, because you can only control your side of the conversation. You are giving up control, which can be scary. You don’t know what is going to happen and must be open to the unknown possibilities of what might unfold in the dialogue. As a leader, you have to have the courage to initiate and step into these situations.

This means addressing concerns head on with your team and giving candid feedback rather than letting people wonder where they stand or how they are performing. There will be discomfort on both sides, and it’s your job to bring the courage for both sides of the discomfort.

When asking for and receiving feedback from others, there will very likely be discomfort on both sides as well. One mistake leaders make is to disrupt the pause after they ask for feedback because that silence is so uncomfortable to bear.  Authors Scott, Fossielen, and Duffy said, “The only way out of this discomfort is through. Try asking your question and then remaining silent. Count to six, slowly, in your head. Very few people can endure six full seconds of silence. They’ll tell you something.”

Also, feedback conversations nearly always require the courage to be vulnerable. It takes courage to be truly honest with yourself and others. It takes courage to say what needs to be said – particularly when it’s unexpected and when no one wants to hear it. It takes courage to look at yourself and your blind spots honestly. Being honest with yourself and others about your shortcomings require courage — but it’s the only way to grow.

Cultivating Courage

When Adam Grant asked Simon Sinek what he thought were some of the most important leadership skills that are unexpected and not even considered leadership skills, without hesitation, Sinek says, “Courage. It takes courage to speak truth to power. It takes courage to admit you don’t know something. It takes courage to admit you made a mistake. It takes courage to have a difficult conversation. It takes courage to step into discomfort. And I think it is undervalued.”

I couldn’t agree more.

“No growth in the comfort zone, no comfort in the growth zone”
—Unknown

If you want to be a successful leader, you have to be willing to make mistakes, be vulnerable, initiate difficult conversations, tolerate uncertainty, and take risks. Put bluntly, if you are not willing to do and say the things that scare you, you are not cut out to be a leader.

So how do we cultivate the courage we need to move forward effectively as a leader amid uncertainty, doubt, discomfort, and fear?

If you want to get stronger muscles, you have to challenge yourself physically in your workouts. This can be very uncomfortable, but the payoff is that you will get stronger over time. Similarly, if you want to grow your business and your leadership, you have to challenge yourself to have uncomfortable, courageous conversations in the spirit of growing yourself and those around you.

The first step is to simply acknowledge the fear. Name what it is you are nervous or scared or hesitant about, and why. For example, say to yourself, “I feel scared about telling Sarah about the impact of her recent errors. I don’t know what to do or how to tell her.” To ignore these feelings is to ignore reality.

Once you name what you’re feeling, you have a choice about what to do with it. So the second step is to choose courage. One mistake leaders make is interpreting fear as a sign to halt or to avoid whatever seems to be causing it. When you notice fear, you have to decide not to let it stop you. You must be willing to make decisions and take actions to move forward despite the discomfort, defensiveness, resistance, fear, or any other reaction that comes up in the high-stakes role of leader. These feelings and reactions call for courage and bravery.

You can observe your gut punch reaction to fear and uncertainty, and replace it with courage. This is what builds your comfort with discomfort over time. Facing your fears builds courage.

The journey of cultivating courage is about leaning into this discomfort. It is about honoring how scary or uncomfortable it is to give feedback, have challenging conversations, announce difficult decisions, hear something you don’t want to hear (but need to hear), question yourself, and sit with uncertainty and ambiguity – and responding to that discomfort with courage. The discomfort, doubt, and fear must learn to call in courage. These polarities can coexist.

This journey takes commitment and, yes, courage. Face the discomfort, again and again. You will build this muscle and get more courageous over time.

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Melissa Eisler

Melissa Eisler, MA, PCC, is an ICF certified executive coach. She partners with leaders to develop their systems thinking, resilience, strategic communication skills, and executive presence in order to reach individual, team, and organizational goals. She blends more than 15 years of experience in leadership positions in the corporate world, with her master’s degree in organizational leadership and extensive background in mindfulness to help her clients master their leadership skills and steer their teams through challenges and change. Learn more about Melissa here.

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Melissa is the founder and executive coach at Wide Lens Leadership and a Partner at Evolution. As an ICF Certified Executive Coach with a Master's degree in organizational leadership, Melissa has coached hundreds of leaders ranging from C-suite to entrepreneur, from Fortune 500 companies to startups, and across diverse industries. Her work focuses on helping high-performing senior leaders and their teams magnify impact by building trust, collaboration, accountability, and healthy communication skills.