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Courage Goes to Work

by Bill Treasurer

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The Leader's Role in Building Backbone

The greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression.

In normal times, people can be divided into two equal camps—safety seekers and opportunity seekers. When fear enters the system, such as during times of economic crisis, the safety encampment grows thick with refugees. The flight to safety hampers the very innovation and gusto needed to help businesses survive during times of economic instability. Bottom line: Safety is dangerous for business.

The time is NOW to put your workers’ courage to work.

Getting started

As a leader, workers take their behavioral cues from you. To role model the kind of behavior you’d like to see among your workers, you have to “jump first.” The stories below introduce three types of courage, as well as some tips for putting each one to good use.

TRY Courage—Carrying On Despite the Risks

Sara Blakely is the founder of SPANX, a women’s under apparel company that sells products designed to promote comfort and confidence. Sara has made behaving with courage a top business priority at SPANX.

Sara explains that being willing to try new things—knowing full well that you might fail – is critical to business success.  It was TRY Courage that Sara used when she knocked on the doors of textile mills begging them to manufacture her prototype for a new footless pantyhose. It was TRY Courage when she traveled to Dallas to persuade Neiman Marcus to sell her products, called on Target to interest them in her new ASSETs line, and first appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. In each instance, Sara carried on despite knowing that she might fail—the very definition of being courageous.

In the ten years since Sara used her last $5,000 to start SPANX, the company has grown into a $200-million-dollar international retail enterprise. The impetus behind this growth is the persistence of a women who knows that trying new things—inventing new products, entering new markets, and more—means being willing to make some mistakes in the process.

TRY Tip: Extend Yourself
Identify the ways in which you have been playing it too safe. What might these behaviors be communicating to your employees? List three courageous actions that would make a positive impression on those around you, even if you failed.

TRUST Courage—Getting Real

Dan Walsh and Matt Walsh are president and CEO, respectively, of Walsh Construction, a fourth-generation construction business in Chicago.

As Walsh Construction has grown, so has its need to create new leaders. So Walsh launched a leadership development program designed to prepare the company’s next generation of leaders. Behaving courageously is one of the program’s central concepts. The participants, who consist of the company’s most promising project managers, are expected to openly express their challenges, frustrations, and even failures with one another. Doing so strengthens the bonds of trust between them.

For strong-willed construction project managers, getting real with one another—essential to building trust—takes a boatload of courage. Knowing this, Matt and Dan begin each workshop by sharing stories about company slip-ups, including their own. This helps temper the typical “rah-rah” idealism that makes many leadership programs an eye-rolling experience.

Craig Atkinson, director of career development at Walsh, says: “If all the project managers hear is chest-thumping about our company’s achievements, they would be in danger of moving beyond confidence and into cockiness. The project managers already know that Matt and Dan are bold leaders; after all, the company has grown from $10 million to $3.6 billion under their leadership. What they learn through the program is that behind the bold leaders are two real people with real struggles, just like them.”

TRUST Tip: Get Real
Are there significant differences between who you portray yourself to be at work and who you really are? List three actions you could take to show up as your authentic and multidimensional self.  

TELL Courage—Speaking Up

Laurie, a project leader working in the government sector, was stewing with resentment after a coworker “threw her under the bus”—criticizing Laurie’s leadership in an email to her manager. When Laurie’s boss told her about the email, her first reaction was to ask to be reassigned.

As Laurie explained, “I was hot. Someone without any direct experience working for me had jeopardized my career without speaking with me directly first. I take pride in my work, and don’t take criticism lightly.

“But all of this was happening during a time when I was doing a lot of thinking about my own leadership abilities. If I were demonstrating more leadership, what would it look like? What would it sound like? Questions like that made me realize that I needed to elevate my own behavior instead of burning with resentment. So I requested a meeting with my coworker.

“It turns out that there was some validity to my coworkers’ concerns, which tempered my anger. I could tell that she cared about quality work as much as I do, and I told her as much. But I also told her that I was hurt that she had chosen to go to my boss before talking with me.”

As Laurie related, the whole conversation was really hard. She wrote, “It was a raw conversation. We got honest with each other. Respectful, but honest. It’s amazing how much courage that took.”

TELL Tip: Speak Up
Stop biting your tongue. Admit a mistake. Make an apology. Share a different viewpoint or opinion. Tell the truth, even if you think the it is difficult for people to hear.
Bill Treasurer is a leadership expert and author of Courage Goes to Work: How to Build Backbones, Boost Performance, and Get Results (Berrett-Koehler, 2008). Founder of Giant Leap Consulting, he advises organizations such as SPANX, Walsh Construction, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. For more information, please visit

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