Play Loud or Sit Down: Leadership Courage

Tenor_slide_trombone_3D_model wikipediaRecently, I asked several experienced leaders what key leadership skills they needed to learn as they advanced their careers and how they developed those skills. Courage was one clear theme. Here are a few lessons for us based on courageous steps they’ve taken:

Play loud or sit down

One senior executive shared situations where he faced decisions to speak up courageously – or not. Playing his trombone loudly in the school band – at the risk of messing up in front of the class and looking bad. “Going for it” and attempting to speak a foreign language with locals despite being a lone exchange student who was afraid of being mocked.

In these and other situations, he developed the habit as a youth of being willing to take a scary risk to learn a skill to help him get where he wanted to go.

He has continued to face decisions that require courage – whether it’s adopting troubled children, speaking up as the new guy with an unpopular view in a board meeting, or confronting a business partner at great risk. Hearing this person’s stories made me ask myself, “where do I need to speak up courageously?”

Help those around you shine

Most of us want so badly to be recognized as shining stars that it’s difficult to focus on helping others shine. So we miss opportunities to …

  • Delegate a high-profile project to someone more junior while supporting them or mentoring them behind the scenes.
  • Help a team member prepare to present a big idea with your boss.
  • Hire someone on your team who is better than you in some area and who could even succeed you in your role.
  • Invest the time, energy and support needed to help a novice develop and excel.
  • Defer to a knowledgeable peer in a public setting.

All these are examples where I’ve seen leaders take courageous steps to let go of a focus on making themselves look good and have shifted to focusing on helping others be successful.

Ask for honest feedback. Listen. And respond with courage.

When is the last time someone gave you feedback – solicited or unsolicited – that was difficult for you to hear? And what did you do with it?

I confess that too often my first reaction to tough feedback is to defend myself, discount the feedback or blame someone else. The courageous first step in these situations is to “lean in” and seek to understand the person’s view. Usually, there is something in their feedback that will help me lead more effectively – if I will hear it and act on it. But it usually involves a step of courage and a bite or two of humble pie.

Whether it’s speaking up, shining the spotlight on someone other than myself, asking for feedback or asking for other kinds of help, these steps often feel unnatural and scary. And if they didn’t, they wouldn’t require courage.

Image Credit

Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults. As a leadership consultant and executive coach, he helps leaders take courageous steps forward. You can reach him at or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr.