Courageous leadership

Tips to be a more courageous leader and develop a team where psychological safety supports openness, cohesion and success.

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In Brené Brown’s book “Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.”, she focuses on creating courageous leaders. 

What is courageous leadership? 

Courageous leaders understand that growth can be hard for anyone, including them. They know that mistakes happen, including theirs. And they choose courage over their own comfort in having tough conversations about vulnerabilities, theirs and others.

Brown makes it clear that “…vulnerability in leadership is not about disclosure, crying and oversharing. Vulnerability is defined by uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”

Lean into courage

To lean in is defined by the Oxford dictionary as to “commit completely or more fully to something, especially when faced with difficulty or resistance.” To lean in to courage as a leader means commit to accepting vulnerabilities, your own and others, in spite of the fear of appearing weak. 

Focus on being a learner, not a knower. This growth mindset helps leaders prioritize learning and getting it right, while perfectionism forces us to focus on knowing and being right. Being a learner and striving to get it right holds space for us to mess up and make mistakes while we continue to grow and evolve. It encourages us to be active problem-solvers who aren’t afraid to lean into trying new, innovative ideas. 

Lead with empathy. When we’re empathetic, we’re sitting with someone and feeling their emotion with them. When we’re sympathetic, we keep that person at arm’s length and we comment on how we feel for them. Here are five skills to work on to help you lean in to empathy:

  • See the world as others see it: Release the grip you have on your own perspective as the primary one and be open to the way other people view or experience something. 
  • Be non-judgmental: Instead of making assumptions or drawing conclusions, stay curious and ask open-ended questions to understand another’s motivation.
  • Understand another person’s feelings: Lean into empathy by giving the individual space to explain how they’re feeling and listen to understand, rather than to respond. 
  • Communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings: Clarify with the individual that you’ve heard them by sharing your understanding of their perspective. 
  • Practice mindfulness: Practicing mindfulness can help us lean into empathetic skills naturally. When we focus on being in the present moment,  not rushing situations or making judgements, we can begin to use those skills when we’re engaged in conversations with others. 

Have the tough conversations. A tough conversation is when you know it’s important, but you feel yourself hesitating to move forward. It may be because you’re worried about hurting another individual or because you’re dreading the emotional reaction that may happen – yours or theirs. 

You don’t always need to solve or fix anything. When someone is distraught, you can listen and respond by saying:

  • “That’s a lot happening for you right now. I’ll sit here with you for as long as you like.” 
  • “I can see that this is hard for you. You don’t have to say anything. I’m here for whatever you need.” 
  • “I see you and you’re not alone.” 
  • “I’m with you. I’m not going anywhere.”

Tough conversations can be about addressing an employee’s performance, supporting an emotional employee, dealing with a conflict between team members, addressing a significant change that’s going to impact your team, etc. When we resist or put off these conversations, we run the risk of creating distrust, exposing others to harm, allowing the issue to escalate, or damaging relationships. 

Ask for honest feedback. After you engage in tough conversations where you’re courageous and vulnerable, you might experience an emotional hangover. You might be wondering if you said too much, if you hurt someone, or if you explained yourself well. You might worry that others are judging you or making assumptions about you. How can you address it? Ask for honest feedback so you can let go of these thoughts and move forward towards a better understanding of how to be a courageous leader. Go to the individual or team you were meeting with and ask them:

  • What was that experience like for you? 
  • What did I do well?
  • How can I improve? 
  • What can I do next time to support you? 

Make note of the answers so you can continue to tailor your approach and have a positive impact.  

Shift from guilt to accountability. If we’re working in unhealthy environments, we might see leaders who leverage shame and blame to motivate change in their team. Brown defines shame as “…the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging –something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” The tactic of using shame to motivate our teams creates a cracked foundation that’s difficult for a team to build on. Leaders should instead focus on guilt and accountability. Brown shares that, “…guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.” When we feel that sense of guilt, and we work in an environment that has nurtured trust, curiosity, and understanding, it’s much easier for individuals to take accountability for their actions and commit to changing behaviours. Guilt can help build relationships, while shame tears them down. 

Develop a courageous team

Walk the talk. If you want your team to adopt these courageous skills, you have to walk the talk. If you love the work and show up differently by being courageous and thoughtful in meetings and interactions, it can influence others to adopt these behaviours too. We don’t motivate people to change, we inspire them to change.

Create a safe space within your team. When our teams feel safe psychologically, they can take risks and be vulnerable in front of one another. They wholeheartedly participate in team meetings because they don’t fear being judged for sharing ideas. They call team members in, as opposed to out, when they feel their behaviours caused harm, whether perceived or intentional. They enthusiastically celebrate the wins of every member. To create your safe space, gather your team and ask them three questions: 

  • What do we need from the group in order to feel okay sharing and asking questions?
  • What might get in the way of feeling safe to speak up?
  • What does support look like on this team?

Gather these responses and use them to create guidelines for discussions and interactions within the team. Revisit them when new team members join, a team member leaves, or during times of significant change. The Team agreement process can help you expand and formalize this approach.

Help employees understand their value. It’s important for us to recognize the contribution and impact each team member has and to nurture their self-confidence by personally acknowledging their value. To do this, meet one-on-one with employees and have them think of 2 or 3 things that they contribute or ways they add value to the team. Share these questions with them beforehand to help them begin to reflect:

  • How and where do you add value to this team? 
  • What unique perspective do you bring to the team and to the work? 
  • We all deal with insecurity or fear from time to time. What does that look like for you? 
  • How can I support you in those moments? 

When we help every member increase their confidence, understand where they fit within the team, and empower them to own and value their unique contribution, we are building our team for success. As a leader, a good understanding of the value and contribution of each employee can also help you delegate tasks, projects, clients, etc. to the team members best suited.

Remember, being a courageous leader takes time. It’s a muscle that needs to be developed and sustained. Along the way, you’re sure to make mistakes, but if you embrace vulnerability by taking accountability for any missteps, you’ll be a leader who helps to cultivate trust, honesty, and safety so your team can thrive. 

Additional resources

  • Inclusive strategies for leaders. Supporting an emotional employee: A process that engages employee and employer to develop solutions that support productivity and well-being. Supporting Employee Success is for any employee, including those needing accommodation. 
  • Conflict response for leaders. A conflict resolution process that can be especially effective when stress or mental health is a factor. This respectful approach focuses on solutions rather than disagreement.
  • Helping employees manage change. Any organizational change may have an unsettling impact on employees. You can help through thoughtful planning, effective communication, and engaging employees in exploring how changes can be handled in a psychologically safe way. 
  • Developing employee plans for leaders. Step-by-step guidelines to collaborate with an employee to develop their own strategies for success.


  • Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead: Brave work. Tough conversations. Whole hearts.  Chicago / Turabian 
Contributors include.articlesMary Ann BayntonSarah JennerWorkplace Strategies team 2022 to present

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