The Courage to Lead Differently

Last week while reading A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book About Leadership, I became struck by the concluding sentences in Chapter 5 (Critical and Distributed Perspectives on Leadership), “We remain more concerned with the ends of leadership rather than its means. This is why we still continue to find ways of invigorating the existing leader-centric models of leadership and to refine and bolster follower-centric models of leadership by means of maintain a healthy democratic counterbalance” (p. 111).

Really?  I don’t believe Jackson and Parry intended this to be an “ends justify the means” statement, but I began to wonder what prevented us, as a society, from shifting our collective focus from leader-centric to shared or co-leadership opportunities.  Certainly there’s an argument for such a shift, but the practice of follower-centric leadership hasn’t been widely accepted to date… are we ready to digest the suggestion that we may need to instantaneously transition between leader and follower as circumstances and needs of the team change?  The Art of Followership examines the many roles followers play and the often complex relationships formed between leaders and followers, not to mention the followers’ influence on culture, standards, and the practice of leadership.  While the movement continues to become more robust, leader-centric models are still more widely studied, researched, and practiced.  But, what would happen if we are all leaders?


This past week I also had the opportunity to hear Dr. Brene Brown speak on vulnerability at the International Leadership Association conference.  Her research suggests that as a society we have become intolerant of vulnerability.  This intolerance has lead to foreboding joy, disappointment as a lifestyle, low-grade disconnection, perfection, extremism, and numbing.  She suggests that our intolerance of vulnerability may prevent us from experiencing joy.

Is it a lack of vulnerability which prevents us adopting a follower-centric model of leadership?  In part, maybe…

Could it be courage that prevents us from shifting the leader-follower paradigm?  Image

Merriam-Webster defines courage as the “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.”  The “what-if” questions and risk we take as leaders to turn over the “important” or “critical” work of leadership which we cannot merely be assign to just anyone becomes crippling.  I suggest courage, rather than vulnerability because of the strength suggested by the definition of courage.

If you recall earlier in the semester we took a deep dive into the Social Change Model, reviewing an article by Helen Astin (1996) titled, “Leadership for Social Change” in which she describes a team’s reflection on the model and subsequent suggestion that courage may be added as the eighth “C” of the model.  The students Astin describes noted that it takes courage to make a change, and the power of the group inspired them to persist in achieving the common purpose; in their case, a social action project.  Nevertheless, this model is about change, and courage may be the key.

To be a courageous leader we may need to examine our lens and begin to celebrate the value of what people create together.  To value shared leadership.  To take a risk and allow others to rise up.  To transform how we lead, and how we follow.

When have you demonstrated courageous leadership?   

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31 Responses to The Courage to Lead Differently

  1. Alexander Jones says:

    I have demonstrated courageous leadership when doing a project for the Taubman Museum of Art in downtown Roanoke. When the museum decided to remodel ArtVenture, it was up to myself and seven others to design the temporary mural being installed. We were just told to relate it to the “monster” exhibition in the museum at the time so our group had many unanswered questions to answer ourselves. I made the decision to use the “monsters” we had to incorporate with various Roanoke landmarks. I was very uncertain whether little children would know what the landmarks were, and even feared that they would be scared of the monsters. After the project was completed and the newly renovated ArtVenture opened up, kids loved the mural and knew exactly what it was supposed to be. It was kind of a risky idea, but it turned out to work out better than expected and that’s sometimes what you have to do when being a leader.

  2. Morgan Carson says:

    My courageous leadership experience came from my senior year in high school when I served as editor in chief of the school yearbook. It was not a controversial topic, but it is hard to have a staff of 28 girls trying to please every different type of student in the 2,000 person student body along with administration. Sometimes it would mean scrapping ideas that people worked incredibly hard on, for the best of the final product. Not only did we have to create the book, but my co-editor and I had to run the class. This meant resolving conflicts among partners, and grading and evaluating our peers work. The hardest part was grading my peers, and still maintaining personal relationships with them. It was an amazing learning experience though, and taught me a lot about my personal leadership qualities.

  3. Lindsay DeMers says:

    Last year when I attended the World Food Prize I was elected by my peer group to speak in front of renowned scientists, CEOs, and presidents from around the world, so I needed a lot of courage then because I also only had two minutes to prepare the speech which was on sustainable farming practices that could be implemented in third world countries to improve food security so those countries could reach their Millenium Development Goals. Taking on such an intimidating audience and in-depth speech took a massive amount of courage; I had dry heaves.
    However, if we’re looking at courage as a possible reason for the shift in leadership not occurring, I think it could go both ways. Leaders don’t have enough courage in their followers to hand over some of the responsibility, or maybe they are blind to that option; they don’t see anything wrong with how matters are currently going. Followers might not have enough courage in themselves to rise up to the occasion for fear of failure and disappointment, or maybe they are apathetic and would rather have others be responsible.

  4. Kristen Fisher says:

    My courageous leadership experience would have to be last year when I was president of my youth group at church. I was selected to preach at four churches in one day. Public speaking wasn’t too bad for me, but preaching was a totally different story. I was so scared to preach in front of people (4 congregations) because sermons are always hard to not step on someone’s toes. I was scared I would be too young. I was scared that people wouldn’t like that I was a girl preaching. I was scared of what I would say. I had no idea to do, what to say, how to act, or how I would get through it. At first, I told my youth leader that I would think about it. That night, I decided that I had to be courageous. I was the president of my youth group, and I knew I needed to be a leader. I spent weeks worried over it, and rewrote the sermon many different times. The day finally came, and I was so nervous. I got through it though. My first sermon went over well, and everyone at least pretended to like it. I didn’t have any negative feedback or any comments made toward me that I was worried about. By the time I got to the fourth church, I felt so good about it. I loved doing this, and saw that it really wasn’t so bad. Sure, not everyone agreed with me or liked that I was preaching to them, but I took the courage to do it. I felt super good about doing it, and even did it again. It was definitely a rewarding experience.

  5. Haley Ward says:

    My courageous leadership experience took place my senior year of high school when I was selected to be the senior director of our school’s pageant. It was my job to come up with a set design along with my co- senior director and since I had done the pageant the year before, it was my job to teach the contestants how to do everything they needed to know to receive the most points they could from the judges. It was hard to critique some of the girls in the pageant though, because most of them were good friends of mine and I did not want to hurt their feelings while making suggestions and comments. I was also asked to write a speech and help MC for the pageant. I had just recently gotten over my fear of public speaking, therefore, the nerves were still there. However, I throughly enjoyed doing this and I really learned more about my leadership styles and qualities by doing this.

  6. Jacob Clore says:

    My courageous leadership experience came when I was on the retreat team at my high school. I went to a Catholic High School where we put retreats on for every grade. Part of the retreats consisted of talks that were given to advise the students on the issues they were facing at that time. I really love the idea of speaking to others , but I tend to get really nervous when the time comes. I also tend to be really critical of myself. However, once it was time to volunteer, I always convinced myself to give the talk, even when I knew that I would be nervous once the time came. Over the course of the year, I ended up giving three talks because I wanted to make an impact on their lives.

  7. Grace Ellis says:

    In the middle of my sophomore year of high school, my family moved from Rockford, Illinois to Rural Retreat, Virginia. My siblings and I were devastated. My parents assured us we would like our new school and make new friends in no time. We didn’t believe them. I remember getting ready for school on December 1st, my first day at Rural Retreat High School. I was a bundle of nerves. I looked at my brother and sister and saw the fear in their eyes and suddenly realized what I needed to do. I needed to lead them courageously into this new chapter of our lives. Even though I was still terrified, I put on a brave face and excitedly encouraged them to go in with positive attitudes and open minds. The first month, I regularly talked to my brother and sister after school and asked them about their teachers and classmates and joked about how different it was from our old school. I saw a good change in their outlook and noticed that they were doing well in their classes and making new friends. I also realized that in the process of being an optimistic leader and role model for my siblings, I became happy and comfortable with the new situation. By focusing on the happiness of my “followers”, I became a better leader. I learned that by lifting their spirits and encouraging them to be brave and open-minded, they, too, were learning to be positive leaders.

  8. Riley St. Pierre says:

    My courageous example of leadership came during the fall of my senior year. I was captain on the cross country team and one night I got a call from a teammate and close friend of mine telling me that our coach’s wife had suddenly and tragically passed away. I was deeply upset and shocked and my heart went out to my coach, his daughter, and his son who was also on the team. As well as the captain on the team I was also the spiritual leader. The next morning, our head coach asked me to say a prayer for coach and his family. Fighting through the tears and the cries of those around me I did. After that, however, I knew that more needed to be done. I felt God calling me to speak more to the team. I got some Scripture together and God gave me the heart, ability, and courage to give others a feeling of comfort. I shared Scripture of comfort and peace and I shared with my team that nothing else in the world mattered except our relationship with God and that we can find comfort in the Lord. God empowered me to be a leader that day and to help my team get through the season. My leadership skills took leap that day because soon after that I started a bible study and did several other things throughout the school year. It was hard to stand in front of the team and comfort them on such a sorrowful day, but God gave me the courage to do so and for that I am very thankful.

  9. Anna Lehman says:

    My Junior year in high school is one time where I have experienced courageous leadership. I took on the task of planning prom with my three best friends. We were all co-chairs of prom committee. This seems like a simple task, planning and decorating, but it involved much more than that for us. Throughout our freshman, sophomore, and junior years we have been earning and saving money as a class to host an amazing prom. We had raised so much money, and could have our prom anywhere. The four of us took a risk and stood up to our principles and administrators to have prom off school site. This was a constant battle for weeks, until we finally lost. This made it even more critical to pull of the best prom for the seniors. Everything had been planned and organized, but during set up, I was in Blacksburg attending my sisters college graduation. I had to leave everything in the hands of volunteers and my friends. The followers took on lots of responsibility. Even though we failed at changing tradition in our school, we successfully put together the best prom, and all of our peers got a larger role in the execution of prom, it turned out to be great.

  10. Miles Rachner says:

    One of my most courageous moments was when I was a soccer captain for both my junior and senior year of high school. I was one of the captains because I knew the game well, and was well liked by my coaches and teammates. However I learned very quickly that being a captain or a leader takes much more that just knowing the game, you must know how to deal with people. When ever a player was in trouble in the field it was a captains job to calm him down so he did not hurt the team or himself. If a player was in trouble academically it was a captains job to help in anyway for the benefit of the individual and the team. All of this takes courage and vulnerability. It is true that many people do not like to be vulnerability because they think it makes them weak, or they do it as a sense of protection. However being invulnerable makes you weak. Having courage is defined in the article above as having “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.”. Being vulnerable is difficult, but it something you need to have to be courageous and a good leader. Being vulnerable is what made me a good leader for my team. I was attached to my team, my players, and my coaches, and they were attached to me and the other captains. This is what made my seasons with my team so successful.

  11. Esther Jeong says:

    My most courageous leadership experience is probably being a co-counselor at my church’s junior high retreat. It’s an intimidating role because I am expected to be a positive light to a group of jr high girls. My role was to be there to support and help the kids with their FAITH. That terrified me because I felt I was inadequate and didn’t even have my life together. How was I supposed to help younger girls? However I quickly realized that all I had to do was be real with them. Authenticity. Explain my struggles and that I don’t have Christianity all “figured out” but that TOGETHER we could encourage each other and learn from each other. Even though i was in a leadership position, I was learning from the girls as much as they were learning from me. I was there to provide wisdom from my experience but it wasn’t at all about if I felt adequate to be their leader but how i could love them.

  12. Allyson True says:

    My most courageous moment was in high school when I decided to audition for the drum major of our marching band. I was extremely nervous and it was even worse when the time came to audition. My audition went well and later I found out I had been chosen, along with another student, to be drum major. I was so excited and prepared to work as hard as I need to in order to make our band the best it could be. I obviously had never been a drum major before and had a lot of learning to do but sometimes it was hard for me to ask for help from others. Since I was an authority figure in the band, it took a lot of courage to step down and get guidance from others.

  13. kelsey edmonds says:

    My most courageous leadership experience was when I went on a mission trip to Managua, Nicaragua the summer after 11th grade. Everything about this trip was completely out of my comfort zone. The extreme poverty, my lack of spanish-speaking skills, and the fact that I was supposed to teach all these kids about the word of God scared me half to death. However, even though I felt unprepared and lacked knowledge of many aspects of the gospel, I came in with an open mind, knowing all I could do was share my love to these kids. As the days went by, I made relationships with kids and their families that I never thought were possible. I honestly can say that I made a lasting difference in every child’s life along with my own. Looking back at it, if I did not have the courage to step out of my comfortable life and lead these Nicaraguan kids, my life and what I value would be drastically different.

  14. Emily Hucks says:

    My most courageous leadership experience was when the show team and myself were headed to a rated horse show. We were having a problem loading one of the horses and everyone was trying to do it their way and not care what the others were saying. This horse was one that couldn’t be pushed around, she was a strong-willed animal that liked to do things on her own time and would rather be around someone that was calm and quite then around all of the people yelling and trying to push her into the trailer. This experience wasn’t what a lot of people see as leadership, but when you have a 1,200 pound animal and that kick out and hurt you when she is scared it took a lot of courage and the situation needed leadership.

  15. Mariana Sa says:

    The day I found out we were going to Ivanhoe I can say I was not happy. Although I always enjoyed the idea of serving others and practicing leadership, the whole idea that I would be assigned a role, in a place I did not know, on a Saturday morning…the whole thing did not sound like fun. For my surprise, our trip to Ivanhoe turned out to be my greater experience with courageous leadership. And the courageous leadership that day came from us, for being there helping out, but mostly from the people that live in that little town. I was so surprised to hear the stories that people had to tell, and the fact that they were “fighting” for their community to survive life after the mine sounded just extremely brave to me. I came back from Ivanhoe feeling happy, with a lighter soul maybe. Ivanhoe is my best example of courageous leadership, and I was happy to be part of that story.

  16. Catherine (Cate) Beach says:

    My courageous leadership experience was when I had to run a blood drive. I was required to determine the time, place, file the paper work and coordinate with the American Red Cross.I had to make sure everything ran smoothly and get volunteers to help me as well as to give blood. Overall, in the end we exceeded the amount of pints collected originally destined for. It was not an easy task, but it took my courage to step up and get things down and I am happy that I was able to have the leadership and courage to accomplish my goals.

  17. Kristina Gallagher says:

    My courageous leadership experience was when I served as a teacher aid in a special-education preschool class. One experience in particular stands out among the rest, where I was forced to go out of my comfort zone to protect one of my students. I was sitting in on an IEP meeting with the my main teacher, my student, and his parents trying to figure out what the next steps we were going to take in his educational/physical/cognitive development were going to be. My student was 4 years old with the cognitive ability of a 6 month old baby, and his parents had practically given up on him and wanted to take him out of school because it was a “waste of time”. When I heard that, I volunteered to work with him everyday after school to prove to his parents that his enrollment in school was crucial to his development and any hope for his future independence. For the following 6 months, I worked with him on grasping objects in his hands, sign language, and physical stability. By the end of the year, his cognitive ability moved from that of a 6 month old to that of a 9 month old, which seems small but is a huge feat for him. Every second I spent with him, was completely worth it.

  18. Emma Reeves says:

    My most courageous leadership experience was during my high school graduation catastrophe. I was chosen to give a speech at my graduation in front of thousands of people, but when I stood up at the podium to give it, my pre-written speech was nowhere to be found. As my classmates realized what was going on, some began shouting at me to “wing it” and “speak from the heart.” Knowing that would not turn out well, I had to calmly step aside to consult our administration staff, all of which were just sitting and watching me. One staff member finally escorted me away from the situation to search for my speech in her office while the principle stalled for time. Luckily, we found my speech and returned to a cheering audience. This was my most courageous leadership experience because I had to remain calm and composed and take matters into my own hands while literally thousands of people were observing my actions as a leader. Although it was a rather extreme situation, I think it ultimately made me a better leader.

  19. Emma Douglas says:

    My most courageous leadership experience occurred during my senior year of high school while I was serving as student council president. During my senior year, the faculty advisor for the student council association, who I had been working with since my freshman year of high school, took a leave of absence; as a result of this, a new advisor with no student government experience was appointed by our school’s administrators. Our new faculty advisor began trying to make all of the SCA’s decisions for us and basically attempting to do my job as president; this became a huge problem considering that she had no idea how SCA worked or what she was doing. Finally, I took a stand and told her that what she was doing was not the way that SCA worked and that we needed to work together to accomplish our goals, rather than having her usurp all of the power and make every decision for us. This was my most courageous leadership experience because I had to remain calm and collected while addressing a problem with a superior. Ultimately, my brief confrontation with our advisor made me a better leader and it helped the SCA to function better.

  20. Courtney Green says:

    My most courageous leadership experience occurred last year, when I was a senior in high school. I took a marketing class and became very close to the teacher. she approached me a few weeks in to the school yeah and asked if i would be president of a club called DECA. After a day or so i accepted her offer. However, I had no idea how to lead a group. After alot of time and hard work it ended up being a successful year. I wish i would have known last year what i learned this semester. It would have helped me to be a more effective leader and would have helped me to develop a style of leadership, values, and beliefs.

  21. Macy Kinder says:

    My most courageous leadership experience occurred during my senior year. At my school there was a F.O.R. club, which helped to educate students about underage drinking and drug usage while also trying to prevent it. When I first heard about the club, I honestly laughed. I had a lot of friends that partied, so I didn’t see the big deal. Then, the sponsor of the club approached me one day and told me that the club needed a strong leader in order to be successful. The sponsor told me that I was the kind of leader it needed in order to get support from the students. I gratefully accepted the challenge. At first, I got ridiculed a lot from my friends and fellow classmates. I felt like I was leading a hopeless cause. Then, I got serious. I really put all of my efforts into the club, which worked because I picked up new members. I strengthened the group as a whole, and I made every member feel important. I stopped caring about all of the teasing that I was receiving. I knew that in order to really reach out to the school that someone had to do it. My group sponsored a “safe but fun” prom fashion that raised money for after-prom while raising awareness about the dangers of after-prom parties. My group was recognized for raising a lot of money during red ribbon week and also for other charities. It was my courageous leadership experience because I had to learn how to be an effective and active leader when I was supporting the minority opinion.

  22. Courtney H says:

    When i was a junior in high school my best friend Katy’s little sister died at the age of 13. I was a Wyldlife leader at the time (a christian organization that tells middle school kids about Jesus), and Kelly was one of my Wyldlife girls. I remember the shock and emptiness that came with those next few days, but i also knew i had a huge group of Wyldlife kids looking to me for leadership and answers. This is where my courageous leadership experience came in to play. My fellow leader and myself were responsible for planning the memorial wyldlife for Kelly the following Tuesday. We invited almost the entire community: friends, parents, teachers, family. There were hundreds of people stacking into the tiny middle school gym. We had made a slideshow of pictures and music, planned speeches and asked kids to speak, presented the family with a memorial gift and had found donations and sponsors for the Kelly Valentine Memorial Garden and the Kelly Valentine Memorial Scholarship. It was a lot of pressure and a lot of drama, but i knew i had to remain calm and keep my cool because there were hundreds of people who were falling apart and were looking to me to keep it together. I had to keep my actions and expressions under control in order to be an effective leader.

  23. Jasmine Porter says:

    My most courageous leadership experience was my senior year as National honor Society President. Our sponsor had favoritism and unfortunately her favorite student was the treasurer. Of course the treasurer has a good amount of input in the decision making process but it had reached the point where the sponsor had her making decision, calling meetings and starting fundraiser projects. After building up enough courage, I nicely told the treasurer that I need her to consult with me and I will make any decisions.

  24. Adam says:

    In high school I took a theatre arts class as one of my electives. My teacher had been looking for a stage manager for that year’s big musical production for a while and I finally went out on a limb and decided that I would do it. I was in charge of leading all of the actors and stage hands as well as working with tech crew and even starting the productions. It was a huge commitment and it required me to learn so much so that I could understand how everything worked. During each show I had to work nonstop to make sure everyone and everything was exactly where it needed to be. Before every show I was jelly, but despite a few unpreventable mess ups, everything went well.

  25. Crista Watson says:

    When I was a freshman in high school, it was the first time I accomplished something on my own and felt like a true leader. We had to do a service project and help a local charity, orphanage or hospital as long as it was sustainable. We were in a group of 4 and no teachers. It was all up to us to come up with solutions. We ended up throwing a party in our school and raised the money to repaint walls and replace furniture for a nearby children’s home. It felt great and I will always remember it.

  26. Andrew says:

    My senior year in high school I was a wyld life leader, and that was the first time I was put in a position of true leadership. It was such a rewarding experience and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

  27. Ethan Brown says:

    I was first put in a leadership position at the tail end of my junior year. I was selected by peers and teachers to be a senior leader for the following year. Instantly I was called upon to serve my school by setting up the senior banquet, a big deal at our school. I had to collaborate with fellow senior leaders and coordinate this banquet so that we would not disappoint the seniors and their families. Overall I learned on the run how to properly manage time for a group of people and to accomplish a set list of tasks by assigning people to jobs they could accomplish best.

  28. Suzanne Berry says:

    My most courageous leadership moments came about when I was a senior in high school. As one of the oldest members of my dance company, I was one of the acting leaders. The studio had just changed ownership and many of the students, including myself, were not happy with the many changes that had been made as a result. We were told that even though the ownership was changing, everything else would stay the same. This didn’t happen. As a leader, I had to help my fellow dancers stay focused and positive throughout the year. This was difficult because I was also trying to do the same.

  29. Libby Howe says:

    My courageous leadership experience occurred through my extensive involvement in my community’s religious education program. As a senior, I did not learn in a classroom setting like all the grades below me, but rather worked with a team of 6 other seniors to act as the Senior Leadership Team. This team worked with the adult coordinators of the program to plan and execute the annual Confirmation retreat in which students 15-16 years old spent a weekend at the 4H camp preparing religiously and spiritually for the important sacrament of Confirmation.
    Running this program frequently meant getting up on stage and sharing parts of my past and my worries and my future in order to connect to the 15-16 year old confirmation class. We put on skits and routines that involved a level of performance that I would never exhibit anywhere other than on this team.
    Working in this group was a major part of my senior year but it took more courage to join the team than most of the 15-16 year old students thought.
    I’m very glad I did.

  30. Jerry Huang says:

    If we were all leaders, then we’d lack a true society as there would no standard to keep by as all leaders would attempt to push their ideologies. There would be too much individuality and no progress would be made. I would consider an all-leader society about as close to anarchy as the lack of a hierarchy and authority would hold nobody to any standards.

  31. Kyla Mauro says:

    My leadership experience was being a gymnastics coach. The experience was so rewarding, not only did i help the kids learn and grow as gymnasts they taught me the importance of communication. I learned that people learn differently and that you might need to use different styles of communicating for different people. One girl all i had to do was explain what i wanted her to correct in words, but others I would were visual learners so videos of them doing the skills helped them see what they had to fix. I have used this skill everyday since and that experience really helped me grow as a leader.

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