School & District Management Opinion

What It Takes To Develop Courageous Leaders

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — August 06, 2017 5 min read
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We know of no leadership training program leading to certification that focuses on courage. What is courage? How is it developed? Does it strengthen in risk taking, in failure or success? And, we guess, an essential question arises of whether or not leadership calls for courage. Or is skill and knowledge enough?

A lucky candidate may come across a professor who includes an investigation of courage in her coursework or who tells stories of experiences where courage was invoked. We believe every human begin has the capacity to be courageous. It is revealed in very different ways, combating cancer or recovering from a horrible accident, dealing with a great loss, entering a war zone, telling the truth when we know there will be unpleasant consequences, or standing up for someone under attack. Very few demonstrate the kind of courage that saves a life or rescues someone but we do hear those stories and they become part of the understanding. Courage is not reserved for the domain of those who lead. In fact, our first sense of courage comes often from those close to us who surmount seemly insurmountable barriers in life. Gradually, a sense of courage grows within us as a feeling and an action. It flashes out in a moment and surprises us, or it is the result of long considered wrong we strive to right. The development of courage is a life-long practice. It is courageous to say what we don’t know rather than hiding it or blundering forward when our actions can hurt someone. It is true that the action of one courageous person often evokes courage from someone else.

A True Story

The wife of a man scheduled for brain surgery asserted to nurses and doctors that his tumor was exhibiting a daily flux. The diagnosis had been confirmed by X-rays and MRI’s so her words were interpreted a fantasy and wishful thinking. Nevertheless, she persisted with reporting the changes she observed while her husband entered the process of medical and psychological readiness for the surgery. At 5 am on the morning of the surgery, the neurosurgeon visited the couple. He had been playing piano the previous night and thinking about them. He wanted to see if the wife’s story had credibility. An early morning physical exam revealed the tumor was smaller than at later times in the day. He canceled the surgery and the patient was released until such time as a specialist from Duke University could be brought join the medical team. Of course, the story didn’t end there. The patient’s cancer was eventually correctly diagnosed and he survived. The neurosurgeon went on to the join the faculty at Harvard Medical School where we hope he teaches his students to listen well, to question themselves and also the data, and to have the courage to change course if the mind and heart require it. All three in the story were courageous but it was the confluence of those individual acts of courage that made all the difference. It is like that in leadership.

Courage in School Leadership

In all our schools and in every situation, someone is calling out the truth and asking to be heard. Leaders need to be able to hear the voices regardless of how weak they are. Leaders also need to be able to reach deep within themselves and call forth the strength to act, to step out on a new path. For some, it may need an awakening, a discovery that one is more courageous than one thought. This can occur when suddenly finding oneself standing up for someone or something, fighting for the ‘right thing’ to be done without the tether of fear. For others, it may be the encouragement and support offered through questions. “How did you come to that decision?” and “How did you decide to take that step?” Whether a school or district leader, speaking to other leaders or to teachers or to parents, courage facilitates the success everyone wants to achieve. It is not only knowing how the school or district has to be run, it is a matter of finding or making the right path.

Do You Have the ‘Will to Lead’?

Peter Koestenbaum, a classically trained philosopher with degrees in philosophy, physics, and theology from Stanford, Harvard, and Boston University, calls courage ‘the way that you will’. In an interview entitled ‘Do You Have the Will to Lead?’ published in FastCompany.com he said

You can’t just change how you think or the way that you act - you must change the way that you will. You must gain control over the patterns that govern your mind: your worldview, your beliefs about what you deserve and about what’s possible. That’s the zone of fundamental change, strength, and energy -- and the true meaning of courage.

Changing ‘the way that you will’ is both a highly personal endeavor, and one that develops over time. But what of our attributes grow or change without formal training, coaching, feedback, and support? Where in leadership training can one find this? And where in professional practice can one find those who can teach and offer feedback and support that encourages one to be more courageous in choices and actions?

Courage, in the way we are writing about it, can be called ‘moral courage’. Rushforth Kidder describes moral courage as being

a “quality of mind” as well as “spirit”, that it enables us to “face up” to problems... and that it requires us to act “without flinching or retreating” (p. 72).

Being a courageous leader doesn’t begin by boldly taking steps against or into a new way of doing things...it begins by taking steps within and questioning beliefs and worldviews and discovering what is to remain and what needs to be changed. It begins by knowing one’s self comes before going boldly where no one has gone before.

In this world of educational leadership, we are called to find our way to courage alone unless we have had the good fortune of a remarkable mentor. But, we can change this. We can begin to have professional conversations about courage. We can invite the stories that hold up courage, not just in heroic moments, but in everyday life struggles. We can reveal the fears that constrain courageous action and discuss the influence of politics on courage. Maybe most importantly, we, as professional leaders, can acknowledge our peers when we are witness to them being courageous. We can support them and offer our voice to simply say “I saw it” and “I respect it”. We can search for and find those who have been courageous leaders, themselves, and ask them to help us, to teach us and to coach us. But, in the end, the development of courage is a personal choice that evidences itself in our professional life. Like all personal choices, reflection creates the space to let the deepest answers emerge, like for the neurosurgeon who got up early to test the truth and was bold enough to cancel the surgery. He played the piano to find his way the courageous question and a new course of action. What do you do?

Kidder, R.M. (2005). Moral Courage: Taking Action When Your Values Are Put To The Test. New York: HarperCollins

Illustration by feverpitched courtesy of 123rf

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.