Women in Leadership: Expanding Your Capacity for Courage and Risk Taking

  • August 29, 2018

The New York Times found that among Fortune 500 CEOs, there are more men named James than there are women on the list; there are also just about as many Johns as there are female CEOs.

Although these findings just seem ironic on the surface, they underscore the continued problem of lack of representation of women in the workplace, especially in leadership. The business world more or less remains a man’s world, and despite some progress for women over the decades, that world can be a scary place. One sign of how scary it truly is has been made evident in the #metoo movement over the past year.

What has shined through during the #metoo movement is the courage of women to admit they’ve been harassed or assaulted, including in the workplace or another professional setting. Simply using the hashtag carries enormous risk—but many have been willing to take that risk to raise awareness of a serious issue facing women in all walks of life.

Of course, not all risk is as weighted as #metoo, but nonetheless should be taken seriously. Women are often faced with professional choices that men don’t have to make. The advice to “just be brave” about taking a risk isn’t helpful and doesn’t solve the underlying problem that the game is different for women, and courage is much more difficult in this reality.

And yet, courage is necessary to succeed, excel, advance, and lead. The Courage Way: Leading and Living with Integrity, co-authored by The Center of Courage & Renewal and Shelly L. Francis, says, “Sometimes leadership feels as though you’ve driven backwards off a cliff (or have been pushed) and you have to crawl your way back to the top, broken and bruised. Sometimes we balance precariously on the edge of burnout. It takes courage to lead in the face of so many challenges.” Expanding your capacity for courage may not be easy, but is well worth the effort and, dare we say, the risk.

General Ways to Expand Courage and Risk Taking

Everyone has the capacity for courage, and everyone can take steps increase that capacity. The authors of The Courage Way write, “Courage exists in the spaces between us. That’s worth repeat­ing and imagining. Courage is not only in our hearts: when it happens and is witnessed, it becomes part of the space between us.”

However, people often hold themselves back from taking a risk for various reasons, including the ones Margie Warrell elaborates on in this Forbes article:

  • Overestimating what could go wrong: Imagining worst-case scenarios is human nature, but this often interferes with what could go right. Don’t let a survival mindset hold you back.
  • Underestimating adapting to change and overcoming adversity: Often, worrying about the consequences of risk-taking outweighs the risk itself. This apprehension fails to consider past successes and how we made it through the not-so-successful times.
  • Amplifying mistakes and shying away from subsequent risk: Inaction can be just as costly as taking a chance (if not more so). Past mistakes should better inform your decisions, not paralyze you from making them.

Although fortune favors the bold, courage is a learned skill and not an innate character trait. But the good news is that courage can be learned, and each time you take a risk, you learn it even more.

Ways Women Can Expand Courage and Risk Taking

As previously noted, risk for women in leadership is often vastly different than it is for men. Stereotypes and attitudes toward women in the workplace remain entrenched, and that inevitably affects the courage women display when the situation calls for it.

Women’s leadership expert Sally Helgesen co-authored the book How Women Rise with Marshall Goldsmith; in it, they delve into the habits that hold women back in their careers. Many of these habits are rooted in risk aversion—women not bringing enough courage to the things they can do to advance themselves. Some of these limiting behaviors Helgesen and Goldsmith detail include:

  • Reluctance to claim achievements
  • Expecting others to notice and reward
  • Building rather than leveraging relationships
  • Failing to enlist allies
  • Minimizing your presence

It is difficult to unlearn these habits, but once you do, the capacity for courage consequently increases. Helgesen and Goldsmith offer advice for women in leadership looking to change:

  • Start with one thing: Make small, sustained changes that build overall confidence as they become ingrained.
  • Seek others’ help: Knowing you have allies on your side naturally inspires courage. Enlisting those allies may entail some risk, but the effort ultimately builds upon itself.
  • Let go of judgment: Don’t let mistakes of the past inhibit the decisions you might make in the future.

The Quality of Courage

Expanding their capacity for courage doesn’t just help women’s careers—it also makes them better leaders.

If you are a woman in leadership, taking appropriate risks and standing up for what is right benefits the organization, as well as the employees you oversee and advocate for. And with consistent courage, you move closer to real change. The authors of The Courage Way write, “Lists of traits and skills may tell you what kind of leader to be, but they don’t tell you how to get there. At its core, leadership is a daily, ongoing practice, a journey toward becoming your best self and inviting others to do the same. And at the heart of this daily practice is courage.” 

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