S1:E25 – Courage: The Key To Successful Leadership


In this episode, Bridgette and Irvine explore the phenomenon of resistance and sabotage — why this is part and parcel of the leadership experience and something to expect rather than to be feared.   



Don’t forget to check out Irvine’s You Tube channel with new videos every Wednesday on emotional intelligence, resilience, and leadership.

Check out Irvine’s new book Leadership Lessons From The Pub.

Check out Bridgette’s book which she co-authored with Bod Duggan  Resilient Leadership 2.0.

And as always, don’t forget about all the mind-blowing free resources some of which are mentioned in each episode. 


Irvine: Well, hello, everyone, and welcome to the Resilient Leadership Podcast, where everything we talk about is aimed at helping you lead with a greater sense of calm, clarity, and conviction, even in anxious times. My name is Irvine Nugent, and as always, I am thrilled and delighted to be joined by my co-host and collaborator, Bridgette Theurer. Bridgette, how you doing today?

Bridgette: Thank you for asking, Irvine. I am doing well. It is a rainy day as we are recording this, so it’s a little gray, but I’m doing well, and I just came back from Florida, where I got a lot of sunshine and that was good, a good dose of vitamin D and I would say that I’m, particularly, excited about our topic today.

Irvine: Yes.

Bridgette: And so, Irvine, tell our listeners a little bit about, what are we going to be talking about?

Irvine: Yeah. It’s a topic that we’ve both talked about recording, and it’s all about courage, which we believe is the key to successful leadership, and it’s, certainly, one of the keys. And so, let’s start by, perhaps, asking, what is courage? We use this word. And so, I looked up the dictionary definition, it’s always good to start with the dictionary, I think, and see what the dictionary says. And it says, it’s a mental and moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty. And I think right away we have this mention of fear. And so, whenever you talk about courage, there is a relationship that is going on there.

And so often, I think they can be seen as polar opposites that either you’re fearful and what’s required is totally the opposite, which is courage. And I think what a better way of viewing is this, and, perhaps, if you go through today, is that, instead of being opposite, one, actually, needs the other. And so, there are, actually, a pair that work in tandem, and fear is there to alert us and courage is there to help us push through the fear when we need to. One final thought on, courage itself, I think is very beautiful, which is the etymology of courage itself, begins with the word core, C O R, which is the Latin for heart.

And I love that because courage, really, is about heart. It’s about this movement of the heart, this energy of the heart into something that requires something that is important to us and something that we have decided to make a stand about, as we’ll talk about. So, Bridgette, I don’t know about you, but when I grew up, courage was something that was talked about for superheroes or something that was displayed in crazy movies; it, really, wasn’t something that we talked about when we thought about leaders in organizations.

Bridgette: Oh, I couldn’t agree with you more. Really, if you ask somebody, are you courageous? The average person is going to say, Who, me? No. It’s not something that we, I think, easily claim as an attribute, but I’m going to go back to that definition that you shared, which is so lovely. So, what is courage? The mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, or withstand danger, fear, or difficulty. And what human being living hasn’t had to do that on occasion.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: And in point of fact, that’s exactly what we do need from leaders, right? We’ve talked about how we are living and leading in a VUCA world, and VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. And it takes courage to face into uncharted territories, to lean into uncertainty and to embrace the fear and danger that resides there, right?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: So, it’s part of the human experience. And I think the, really, good news is that courage is a muscle that can be strengthened. And I think that leads us nicely into understanding the neuroscience behind it, right? Irvine, share with listeners a little bit about courage and the brain.

Irvine: So, it’s interesting, there has been a lot of research, of course, on fear. In fact, fear is, probably, one of the most researched emotions that we have, so we have a lot of understanding about fear now, but let me just get on my pulpit.

Bridgette: Soapbox.

Irvine: Yeah. My soapbox and pulpit to preach a little bit, because fear is one of those emotions that, at times, are demonized and we just have to get rid of fear. And yet, I always begin with, emotion is there to give us a message. And the message of fear is that evolution has taught us something in our environment is threatening to us, and so fear sets off this reaction to protect. And that is never something that should be demonized, that’s something that should be appreciated. And so, fear is there for a reason, however, what’s also, really, important is that we also then have courage. And courage is there to help us work through, at times, fear, which can help us be closed up.

And so, when it comes to fear, of course, we’re very cognizant that it’s part of the amygdala, which is this center in the brain, which, actually, processes threat. And what happens is that as we see threat or experience a threat to us, this amygdala regulates our response, and, of course, that response is, incredibly, quick. And so, that response sets off within us a lot of physiological responses to help us either prepare to move-in to fight, or to flee, or just to freeze in that moment. So, where does courage come in then? Well, there’s been a lot of research which has just come out lately about, so fear resides in the amygdala, or at least the response and the modulation system is in the amygdala, where is courage?

And so there’s some, really, interesting research from a neuroscientist from Stanford called Andrew Huberman, and he has found circuits in the brain, which can be switched on or off, which can control some of that fight or flee. And so, it’s found right in the middle of the brain in a place called the VMT, and it sends signals to the neuro cortex, and that neuro cortex, of course, is this executive functioning part of the brain that helps us to modulate our emotional responses in the face of threat.

So, here we have, in our brain, we have this part that’s there to protect us, that sets in motion all of this reaction, and we also now have a part as well, which helps modulate that and helps us move-in when we need to move-in. And, in fact, part of that research is, really, interesting because now they’re thinking that they can help people with PTSD.

Bridgette: Wow.

Irvine: Or people with phobias or anxiety disorders, get over some of the feelings that they have whenever they feel under threat. So, Bridgette, any insights on how this might be done? Because, I think, some of the research does point to some strategies that have been found very effective.

Bridgette: What you’re reminding me of, Irvine is, and I think this is one of the most optimistic findings of neuroscience, is that we, actually, have more influence over what part of our brain is being activated, right? What part of our brain is in the driver’s seat, than we realize, and so there’s this switch, so to speak. And so, how do we turn on that courage switch? So, one idea is to, really, strengthen our patterns of bravery. I said earlier, we have all had moments of courage in our life.

So, if we reconnect with those moments, if we recall them, if we look at them and realize that in that moment we were able to call on some resources and act in a courageous way, that helps us to think of ourselves as brave. And if you see yourself as brave, then you can become brave, right? I think another thing that can, really, help is focusing on the why of your bravery. In other words, if you’re going to take a courageous action for the sake of what, are you doing it, what’s on the other side?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: Because it’s hard. And yet, if you can say, well, what is, really, the purpose behind my courageous act here? What am I, really, trying to do? And then, take it a step further and, actually, visualize the positive results on the other side, albeit, very difficult, but something on the other side is truly meaningful for you. I think all of those things help us to embody bravery. And I’ll say one other thing, that from a neuroscience point of view, we know that neurons that fire together, wire together.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: So, as we remember and recall those incidents of bravery in our own life, we’re activating our neurons, we’re strengthening that pattern of activity in our brain. Isn’t that interesting?

Irvine: Love it. Love it.

Bridgette: What do you think this means for leadership, Irvine?

Irvine: Yeah. So, it’s interesting. I think, let’s start this by saying, we’ve already alluded to the fact that their fear and courage are in a relationship here. So, perhaps, before we move on to what does courageous leadership look like, maybe we should, kind of, think a little bit about what are some of the greatest fears that leaders face that, perhaps, courage is needed for? And, of course, there are many fears we could have, but, maybe, if we, kind of, summarize, there’s three that, kind of, come to mind that are, really, important.

One is, I think the fear of facing reality. You’ve mentioned at the beginning there, we’re in a VUCA environment, we’re in an environment where things are changing, it’s complex, where things don’t always go right. And, at times, it can be, really, fearful just to face reality in the face. We have gone through COVID now, where the complications that caused and it was creating headaches for many people. And the simplest thing was to, kind of, have this pretty rosy picture of what could happen without, really, accepting reality for what it is and just to, really, face reality, and that’s a fear that many people have.

I think another fear is a fear of not knowing everything, I think we have an unrealistic expectation that our leaders are people that know the answers and they’re expected, especially moments of crisis, to know the answer. And leaders put this tremendous amount of pressure upon themselves. And there’s this fear that like, if I say I don’t know something, something bad is going to happen, and so I just can’t go down there. And then the third is, I think, a fear of acknowledging feedback. There are times as a leader, we make decisions and we think we have everything worked out, and we know what the path is, and we just have to listen to me and do this path.

And the last thing we want to hear is, there’s something wrong with that path, you haven’t thought about this, you haven’t thought about that. And, of course, so what we do is we just, we, kind of, fear someone mentioning that, we just want things to go ahead without anyone saying anything. So, I think it takes courage in all of these three examples to, really, stand, honestly, before these three situations. So, Bridgette, I’m curious, you’ve worked with so many leaders. Have you encountered leaders where, really, these fears got in the way and prevented them, really, from taking the action they needed to?

Bridgette: Well, first of all, I think the fears that you mentioned, I’m sure as people are listening, they’re nodding their heads, because these are, just such common struggles for all of us.

Irvine: Yeah. Yeah.

Bridgette: I’m thinking of a leader that I worked with recently and she had some fear around receiving feedback, initially. I think that can be a courageous act to ask for feedback. Some leaders do it and some don’t.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: And we were having a conversation about this and she was expressing some of her reticence, some of her fear around it. But I have to say, she moved through it quite beautifully, and what she ended up deciding to do, we were talking about, just questions she might ask a few colleagues to get some feedback, right? And I threw out some questions and I threw out one question, I thought, She’ll never go for this. Okay? And the question was to ask her colleagues, if there’s one thing about me that I might not see right now, but if I could see, it would help me to be a better colleague, what is that?

And I thought, she’s not going to pick that, because that’s a pretty tough question to ask. But guess what? That’s the one she picked. She took that question and she asked a handful of colleagues and she got fantastic feedback.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: Yeah. And so, it led to such a rich conversation between her and her peers and to a rich conversation with herself, and she, really, learned something from taking that courageous act. So, I think it was a struggle, and she moved through the struggle and there was something on the other side that was quite lovely.

Irvine: Yeah. Well, I love that example. And I think it also brings to fore, Bridgette, at times, when we think of courage, we, kind of, think of the person running into the burning building and rescuing people inside, and that’s courage. When, really, it is the courage to have someone, Hey, I’m inviting you to, really, give me feedback on my blind spots.

Bridgette: Yes.

Irvine: And to, really, think of that as courage. And I love that. So, as we talk now, connecting courage to leadership, and that’s such a beautiful example you gave of what courage might look like in leadership. Any other things come to mind when we think about what courage might look like in leadership?

Bridgette: Yes. And I think it begins with this, it begins with a willingness to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. That any of the things we’re talking about are going to produce discomfort in ourselves and, potentially, in other people. And we have to build that muscle for tolerating the discomfort that leadership brings for us and for others. And so, what does that look like? Well, it might mean, for example, conflict. Really, being willing in a meeting to hang in there and challenge ideas, even though it makes some people uncomfortable to lean into that conflict and to have spirited discussion that for a few moments teeters on that edge, where people are like, Ooh, I don’t know if we should go there or not, right?

So, that’s an example. I think being comfortable with the discomfort of holding ourselves and others accountable. That’s a big one. It’s like, I don’t know how to have that conversation with somebody, because it’s going to be so uncomfortable. And I think what we’re saying is, yeah, it is going to be uncomfortable. And that’s the fear part of courage. But we can lean into that, we can grow our muscle for being uncomfortable.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: Right?

Irvine: Absolutely.

Bridgette: Maybe the other thing that comes to mind for me is a willingness to take risks and lean into the fear of failure. Because as we’ve talked about in other episodes, leadership is a lot about leading people to new terrain. And there are always risks involved, there are no guarantees in life.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: And we may fail, our business may fail, an initiative may stumble. And guess what? Sometimes we might falter and fail, but we cannot, really, spur innovation and growth without a willingness to take risks, which makes us vulnerable.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: Makes us vulnerable to ridicule and failure, and I think that is a big part of the courage of leadership. Do you think so too, Irvine?

Irvine: Absolutely, yeah. And I think, especially when, at times, leaders feel responsible for the organization, the employees, and, at times, we can get into this, kind of, emotional feeling that I need to protect, protect, protect.

Bridgette: Yeah.

Irvine: And I think, at times, we can, therefore, become averse to any form of risk, and in reality, not taking the risk will lead to a worse situation. But it takes courage to be able to, kind of, stand forth and say, you know what? This is a difficult decision, but we needed to make it.

Bridgette: Indeed. So, what else, Irvine, that’s what came to my mind? But when you think about courage and leadership, I don’t know, are there any other thoughts or insights you want to share?

Irvine: Yeah, let me give, there are a couple of others that come to mind. One would be an ability to display moral courage or authenticity. There are times where, and I think courage is speaking up when, perhaps, it’s going to take a toll, when, perhaps, it will create discomfort. And, especially, in situations, perhaps, where there is an injustice, where, perhaps, someone’s not being treated fairly. And the easiest thing to do is, and, especially if you’re not the leader, especially if you’re just part of the team, just to sit back and to say nothing. And to, really, then have the courage to insert your voice and say, You know what? I don’t like the way that this is happening.

And I remember I worked with a client a few years ago. They were on a team and they just were, really, having issues with the way that a person was being talked over and, kind of, shut down, and they just thought it had been unfair. And so, at the meeting, we talked about it and they said, Well, what would courage look like there? And they said, I think I need to say something and. And so, at one of the meetings, she just said, can I make an observation? And she just said, I just have an observation of what I’m seeing is that, I’m not sure the other person’s name, but they come with such great ideas, and, at times, I feel that they don’t have an opportunity to fully present their idea. And I would, really, appreciate them having the time to do that.

Bridgette: That’s lovely.

Irvine: I said, how did you feel? Then she said, Oh, I was shaking a little bit, and I was relieved when I did that. So, that, kind of, moral strength to be able to do that. And then, just authenticity, can I be myself? Can I, really, live up to the values? And this is another example I have of a coach who was in an organization that, really, had insane hours and there were unrealistic expectations that they would work to seven o’clock at night. And there was a feeling that they were missing out on some important things in their life and, particularly, for this person was their son’s soccer game. And so, they just had the courage in spite of everyone else, kind of, looking at them dagger eyes, I’m, actually, leaving today at five o’clock.

Bridgette: Wow.

Irvine: I have to leave, this is important. And, actually, what happened after that was, he said, I, really, had to pull the knives out of my back when I got into the car, but they said in the weeks that followed, people come up and thank you for your courage to say that because it’s empowered me to do the same.

Bridgette: Yeah, that’s so neat.

Irvine: And it’s amazing how. Yeah. So, that’s that. And then the other courage is sometimes we think of courage as doing something, rushing in, but sometimes courage is just about standing firm and being resolved in a decision. And I’m bringing to mind an episode that we did just a few weeks ago when we talked about sabotage and we talked about people reacting against us, et cetera. And so, often we can make stands, which are the right decisions, sometimes change initiatives and people don’t like change and we can have people reacting against that, even trying to sabotages.

And, at times, it’s easier to give in to say, oh, yeah, I get you. And to appease, rather than to stand firm in the decision and at the same time remain connected to that person. And that takes a lot of courage. So, at times, it is, just this standing firm that, really, is the courageous act.

Bridgette: Indeed. And some of our most courageous moments happen when no one’s, really, looking, right?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: When we decide to speak up, there’s a lot of courage that is, actually, happening before the moment of speaking up, right? We’re working through those fears. And, again, it goes back to this misnomer we have that courage comes in the form of superheroes.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: Running around and saving lives, but it’s these small moments that make such a difference, and not just for us, but then the courage spreads. It’s contagious.

Irvine: Absolutely. Yes. So, this is an interesting segue now, we mentioned at the beginning, this on/off button.

Bridgette: Yeah.

Irvine: An activation of courage. So, let’s just try now to think about, what are some ways we can suggest that people might be able to activate courage when they have a decision or something that they have to do? Anything come to mind for you, Bridgette?

Bridgette: Well, one thing that comes to mind is, and it links back to the neuroscience of how our brains work, and that’s to, really, challenge our negativity bias. So, all human beings, all human brains have a negativity bias; it’s a holdover from evolution. And what that just means is that from an attention point of view, the human brain tends to notice negative things more than positive things, it tends to remember negative events more than positive ones. And they stick, they have a quality about them, negative things, that are, kind of, sticky in the brain. And this can prevent us from acting bravely because the negativity bias kicks in and we think about all of the worst case scenarios that could happen.

And point of fact, we can challenge this bias. We can say, Is that, really, so? And take another look at it; because if we don’t, I think the negativity bias wins out unless you do something to, kind of, challenge that, you’re not going to take these actions. So, that’s one thing that comes to mind. Another thing is just the daily practice or the weekly practice of getting out of your comfort zone. And we all know that getting out of our comfort zone is where growth resides.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: But we also don’t, really, like it, we like being comfortable, we like staying in our nice little cocoon.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: And I think if we, regularly, notice when we have become too comfortable in our lives, in our careers, in our relationships, and we resolve to practice baby steps of getting outside of our comfort zone.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: That practice builds the muscle, right?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: What else? Maybe managing and noticing the role the body plays in all of this, because doesn’t it take stamina to act courageously?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: And if we’re sleep deprived, we’re not getting exercise, we’re not doing all of these things that we know that help our bodies and our brains to operate at peak level, it’s going to be so much harder. So, perhaps, starting even just with that of how well am I taking care of my body? If I’m facing a potential challenge that is going to require great courage, what do I need to do for my physical health in order to do that? What do you think, Irvine? That’s what came to my mind, what comes to your mind?

Irvine: Yeah. I think I just throw one in, and it’s our old friend, which we have mentioned many times before, and that is the power of breath, and I think it’s important to mention here, because of this relationship between fear and courage. And one of the things that happens when we are triggered for fear, is that our whole body goes into an automatic reaction, and part of that, of course, is that our autonomic nervous system is activated, and so our blood pressure increases, our breathing rate, blood is drawn from our stomach; all of those things that we become familiar with, with the fear reaction.

And one of the ways that we know, an increase in research on the power of breath, to, actually, switch that nervous system back to a calm state, to bring down our breathing rate, to reduce the heart rate, et cetera. And, of course, that’s needed, when we’re very activated in fear, it’s so much more difficult to show courage when in that moment if we can just switch that, we can begin to activate or prefrontal cortex and, kind of, think about what do I, really, need to do in this moment?

What’s, really, important with some of the research is that it’s not breathing in and holding it, and then it’s, really, the breathing out, and that breathing out, really, helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which, really, helps to regulate the heartbeat, et cetera. So, it always remains attached to the breath.

Bridgette: Such a powerful asset that we always have at hand, and yet, we underutilize it.

Irvine: Totally. Yeah. And we never think about it. And yet, it has so much power, and it’s a wonderful gift, when you think about it, we have the fear and we have these emotions, but we also have the gift of breath, which so often, can help us activate that other part and help us, maybe, switch on that courage button. So, Bridgette, we always try to end with a practice. What do you think we could do this week in this episode about courage?

Bridgette: So, I think we can, maybe, ask ourselves a different question than we, normally, do. When we are facing into a big challenge that is going to require bravery or courage from us. I think the natural question to ask is, what do I need to do? How do I do it? What do I do? And what do I do first? A different question is, who do I need to be as I face into this moment? And to answer that question, it can be helpful to think about colleagues or leaders or mentors that you’ve been around and who you admire, because you watch them lean into a challenge with great courage.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: And to remember that and to think about, well, what kind of a person were they? Who were they in that moment? And then, as you face into your own moment, your own daunting challenge, bring that person to mind, who you admire for their bravery. And remember the qualities that they demonstrated in that situation. What body posture did they show? What conversations did they have? How would you describe their presence? Because that’s a big piece of it, right?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: And so, who do we need to be as we face into these moments? So, I think this is a great question and not one that we, typically, ask.

Irvine: No, no. Oh, I love that. It’s such a different way of looking at it, and, at times, we do; talked about our superheroes, and these are just like, sometimes we have our own heroes who are, probably, not known to other people, but have inspired us through their mentoring and through the way they have led and to tie into that spirit. Oh, that’s, really, powerful.

Bridgette: Irvine, I wanted to share something before we end and that is, as I was sharing that practice, I was thinking of my own, sort of, personal hero in my midst right now, which I know I’ve shared this with you, but I have a dear friend who’s facing into her own big challenge. And what I am witnessing is, incredible, bravery, incredible courage. And I’m learning from it and I’m noticing it and so much of it isn’t just what is she doing, but it’s the person she is being in the midst of it. And we can all be elevated by the personal heroes in our midst, right?

Irvine: Yeah. I love that. Well, what a powerful conversation and a powerful reminder of the importance of courage and some interesting research about this on/off button and to think about some of our greatest fears, because it always works in tandem with courage. And then, I’m, really, embodying what courage looks like, to, really, think about how courage might show up in the workplace, and, maybe, just encourage listeners today, think about your past, think about people who you would say showed acts of courage, what was happening.

And then to remind it in this last question is, it’s not just about what they did, but it’s about who they were and the presence that they brought to a situation. Wonderful food for thought. Well, thank you, Bridgette. Thank you, listeners, as always, feel free, if you’ve enjoyed this or any other episode, feel free to spread the word and to send them a link to a certain episode, especially if someone’s going through something and you think, God, I’d love to give them something, maybe one of our episodes would fit the bill perfectly.

If you have any ideas about future episodes or something we want to discuss, always feel free to email us at resilientleadershippodcast@gmail.com. Next week, we’re going to continue the discussion, a little bit, about courage, and we’re going to talk about one of the areas that I hear so much about, is how do you have difficult or courageous conversations? So, Bridgette, thank you so much for your thoughts and wonderful ideas in this episode, I’ve so enjoyed this conversation and everyone have a wonderful, wonderful week ahead. Bye, everyone.

Bridgette: Thank you, Irvine. Take care, folks.

Subscribe to our Podcast

Other Episodes You Might Like

Share this post with your friends