4 Elements of Courageous Leadership

UPDATED: August 2, 2022
PUBLISHED: August 5, 2022
4 Elements of Courageous Leadership

I hear it all the time: “I wish I could be a great leader like that.” Or, “I sure would like to have the kind of business success that person has.” What they really mean, if you cut right down to it, is that they would like to reap the benefits of business and leadership enjoyed by the person they are talking about. That is what they really want. They want the money, the recognition, the authority and the control.

How do I know that’s what they really mean? Simple. Because when I hear that, I always ask the same questions: Are you willing to do what that person did? Are you willing to go through all that person went through to get there? It’s the look I get at that point that makes me realize they had never thought about it that way.

When you look through human history, you see leaders in myriad areas who had to overcome many obstacles and persevere through many trials to achieve what they did. Almost every instance of leadership that has pushed us along toward progress has involved courage. From those who lead great countries to those who lead small businesses, and everyone in between, great leaders must show courage in the face of obstacles and tough decisions.

Think about the moments of courage each business owner faces all the time that, in the long run, add up to whether they will become successful:

The courage to expand

When you get to the point where your business has become comfortably successful, it’s easy to decide to just settle in, relax and enjoy yourself. You might be afraid of what happens if you take one more risk to go for the big gain. What happens if it doesn’t work out? It’s easier to play it safe instead. 

Leaders face that decision with courage. They understand the ramifications, but they overcome their fear and move forward despite their reservations. It takes courage to leave the status quo behind and expand.

The courage to make tough decisions

At least weekly, the average business leader will face a really tough decision. Most of the time, they must decide between an easy but poor choice versus a difficult but good choice. Much of life is like that. Those who succeed and become strong leaders are those who have the courage to reach deep down inside and consistently make the harder—but better—decisions. 

The courage to fire poor performers

Sure, there are some heartless people who love canning an underperformer, but I have found that most leaders don’t like having to let people go. Even if they know the person should go, they feel bad about having to make the decision. They care about how it will affect the person and their family. They wonder how other employees will react, particularly if the employee in question is popular. But this is part of courageous leadership. One of the biggest mistakes of my career was not firing a poor performer early on. To grow as a leader, you will need to show the courage it takes to constantly prune your workforce and keep it efficient.

The courage to change direction

Businesses in the modern age, particularly small businesses, have to be able to change direction on short notice. The pace of change in our world today would stagger those from previous generations. When faced with the need to change direction, strong leaders make the leap. Weak leaders doubt. They fear change. They sit on their hands and fret. And, eventually, they go down with the ship. Strong leaders look forward, see where they need to go, make their plans, communicate with their teams and execute. 

So what is courage? It is simply acting when we know what we should do, regardless of any fear we may have. It is the choice to disregard worry. It is the choice to do right, to pursue our dreams, to be successful people and to lead the way for others.

Courage changes lives; first for ourselves, then for those around us.

The day you begin to stare down your fears and worries as a leader, your business will change. You will accomplish things you once only dreamed of. You will experience things you thought were only for others—the courageous ones. You will realize that your fears were baseless—paper tigers, a mirage. You will begin to experience true leadership.

You will also change the lives of those around you. Simply put, courageous people pull others along with them. Everybody benefits from courageous people. For example, I have a friend whom I admire greatly. A few years ago, he decided to leave a very lucrative career and pursue a dream. A myriad of obstacles were thrown his way. The day he left his company, he found out that his wife had cancer. He went into a great deal of debt to finance his dream. He raised millions of dollars, putting his name and reputation on the line. But still, he acted courageously. Eventually he sold his company for a big profit to a larger company. If he hadn’t acted courageously, he would still be plugging away working for someone else.

Here are some quick tips for leading with courage: 

Know what you want

Courage is about choice. If you are to act courageously, you need to know what the right choice is. Be clear about your dream and vision.

Do not worry

I heard recently that worry is the wrong use of the imagination. That is perhaps the best definition I have ever heard. Worrying is just thinking about all of the bad possibilities, isn’t it? Well, courage is just thinking about all the great possibilities and then acting upon them.

Do your homework

It helps to get the facts because then you can make an informed decision that will put your heart and mind to rest. There will probably be a downside, but if we understand it we can choose alternatives and act decisively.


There is no substitute for the first step. Do you know what you want? Have you thought of the possibilities? Have you done your homework? Then what are you waiting for? The next step is to take the first step, and act!

Our world needs great leaders now more than ever. We need courageous leaders who will see into the future and set the agenda for others to get there. This month, make it your goal to reach deep down within yourself and act with courage. Those who follow you will be glad you did.

This article was published in February 2009 and has been updated. Photo by Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

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