Recently in Change Agents Worldwide we were discussing the challenges of change leadership. What struck me in that conversation was that there is a real challenge of courage for leaders. Change leadership is difficult, not always a positive experience and fraught with failure. Leading change takes people to have the courage to push for change.
The challenge of leadership courage in change is not the big risky acts that demand bravery. Big risky acts are those people are expected to pursue in leadership roles. There are rewards for taking the big risks even when you fail.
Little Everyday Acts
Earlier this year I read my Change Agents Worldwide colleague Lois Kelly’s book, Naked Hearted. The book is about removing the filters and getting to the real issues. Besides being beautifully written, Lois shares a series of personal essays in which she examines many of the ways we can duck the chance to be open and show courage in being ourselves. Lois has taken this theme further and is now running a series of Courage Camps to enable others to examine how to be bolder.
The book was a reminder to me that the hardest form of courage is the little everyday acts of courage. These opportunities for leaders to take these small risks come so hard and so fast that it can be easier to take the easy option and avoid them. There is rarely praise and accolades for these everyday actions. At times, there can be enormous social pressure to “accept the status quo”, “fit in and get along”, not to raise “the elephant in the room” or to “go with the flow”. We have lots of phrases to describe surrendering our little acts of courage.
We can at times feel that even a single missed moment of action on these little acts creates insurmountable barriers to future action. These little acts offer little reward for action to overcome doubts. With doubts and barriers leading to inaction, over time expectations can arise that certain issues won’t be addressed. The expectations are how toxic cultures are built over time.
The little acts of courage include:
- presenting ourselves openly, honestly and without gloss
- separating yourself from a group
- pointing out a difficult, hard or inconvenient truth
- sharing hidden or suppressed stories
- listening when the conversation makes you uncomfortable
- sitting in uncertainty
- exposing our vulnerability
- deferring to the contribution of others
- following another’s lead
- managing tension towards a productive outcome
- making a change from a successful formula
- challenging the prevailing culture
Each of these acts of courage takes no more than a moment. We barely notice whether they are there or are missing. These are the moments that can often shock us into inaction and we think of things later that we should have said. Often we have to reflect deeply to understand what happened in the rush of our days and how we could act differently.
While these acts are small, they are missed if not addressed in the moment. High-performing teams and vibrant cultures create an environment of psychological safety such that these little acts of courage become the expectation. Cumulatively, a cascade of these small acts of courage creates an enormous difference as they role model better culture, enable hard change and enable others to act.
Failing the Test
I have found myself testing my own little acts of courage a great deal over the last year. I have a strategy of not engaging in political debates because, in our highly partisan climate, open debate rarely creates change or creates productive learning environments. The upswell of discussion in the last year around the world on topics like privilege, sexual harassment, sexism, racism, immigration, gender, sexuality, and nationalism, and more has tested my resolve to sit out. I have made some efforts to discuss the general non-political implications of these issues for communities and society like our need to foster civil society.
However, my caution and doubts have been sorely tested. The toxic political environment and lack of civil society around these critical human issues have also seeped beyond political contexts and social media. People have felt emboldened to express intolerance, to foster division or to dismiss the contributions of the marginalised. In the last year, I have had more conversations in both business and personal contexts where people have expressed ugly views in the interests of ‘not being politically correct’.
I wish I could say that I had lived up to my own expectations of calling out all these behaviours and displaying the necessary little acts of courage. I was brought up to value politeness and good relations. Staying silent in the face of difficult conversations is too easy. However, it is ducking the hard work that we need to do to create the kind of relationships, organisations and societies.
I have kept silent at times too because as a well-educated middle-class grey-haired white male who has held senior management positions I am a representative of the group that has much to learn by listening to other voices. I know I have been the beneficiary of extraordinary privilege in my career. When opportunities keep opening up for you, you know that is more than talent, hard work or luck. Too many hardworking people of talent don’t get the luck they deserve. Privilege also acts an insurance policy. That privilege means that mistakes and shortcomings that might have had ended or held back others have not had that effect on me. I can be an ally to others and I can be braver in helping others to take action on these moments, both little and big.
I have kept silent at times too because I have made my own mistakes and not been called on them. Part of privilege is this protection. I’d love to be able to say the only issues were those where I silently acquiesced in decisions or actions of others, but my fingerprints are on too many moments to list. My privileged situation actually protected me from my own failings when others didn’t have the courage to tell me where I let them down. I had one team in my career where I thought I did a great job of management. The team seemed to have a great culture & great performance. In support of those goals, I engaged directly with the team consistently, including regular skip level meetings and working on development plans for the whole team. Only years later did I discover through a third party that one of my team felt bullied by their manager, one of my direct reports. My high expectations, support for the team and praise of their progress was taken as my unwillingness to hear bad news and my alignment to my direct reports. Despite regular interactions, a flat structure and regular open communication, nobody felt it was OK to point out an issue. One little act of courage could have changed that situation by opening a different conversation. I sailed on oblivious convinced in my leadership while others suffered in silence. It makes me wonder how many other stories that I may never know. I can be an ally to others and search harder for the stories that need to be told.
Putting Little Acts of Courage into Action
The value of being an ally was emphasized yesterday. Oprah Winfrey spoke at the Golden Globes accepting her Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement award. The response to the speech was dramatic with an upswell of enthusiasm for her leadership and calls for her to run for President.
Much of this call misses the message of Oprah’s acceptance speech. It is full of little acts of courage and explicitly a call for action for others to follow her lead. She asks all of us to:
- listen to the hidden stories
- help others to tell their stories
- take action to improve our workplaces and society by exercising little acts of courage to push for change in the culture
Realising Oprah’s vision of a new dawn won’t take a new heroic leader bring about big change. We don’t need to follow. We need to act on the little everyday acts of change.