Courage – the most important of leadership virtues

Aristotle named courage the first virtue, because it makes all other virtues possible – and I agree. As important themes go in leadership, courage is in my opinion, the most significant – either by its presence or absence.

Courage is therefore something all the greatest leaders throughout time have demonstrated, without exception. Nelson Mandela, Helen Keller, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Ghandi, and even New Zealand’s own Sir Edmund Hillary, were all people who showed grand acts of courage throughout their lifetimes.

Tiananmen Square 'Tank Man' - a famous act of courage.

The internationally recognised Tiananmen Square ‘Tank Man’ is an image synonymous with absolute courage.

In my own  life, I am constantly faced with the choice to be courageous – whether it is acting in the face of some injustice I witness in my community or plucking up the courage to have a difficult (but necessary) conversation.

I am yet to have a coaching session with one of my clients where the concept of courage does not appear in some shape or form. Even the act of writing this blog can sometimes take a generous dose of courage!

Therefore, I believe it is impossible to be an effective leader without being courageous on a regular basis.

Being courageous can facilitate change and bring about great outcomes because it:

  • Helps us to grow and conquer our fears.
  • Widens our circle of understanding and experience (refer to my Pushing Through the Red Zone blog).
  • Enables us to speak for those who have a limited voice, or who are vulnerable.
  • To stand up for what we believe in.
  • And it encourages us to become the person we want to be.

The question is, how do we strike a healthy balance without vacillating between cowardice and recklessness? 

Striking a balance between cowardice and recklessness - The Leader's Digest

As always, mindfulness is the key. Being aware of what we fear enables us to examine what being courageous in response to that fear looks like. For example, if we have a fear of speaking in public and in particular, being ridiculed as a consequence, we can then decide what being courageous in this instance would mean i.e. speaking to a group of people, or enrolling in a toastmasters course.

Sometimes just standing still and not backing down is all that is required to show courage.

Where do we begin?

Start with small acts. For example, practicing giving feedback to a trusted friend, before moving into work situations.

Become comfortable with our own feelings.  Particularly more challenging ones – such as fear, anger, or sadness.

Take a different approach.  Veer from the ‘normal route’ and observe what happens. Practicing small acts of courage on a daily basis enables us to flex the ‘courage muscle’. As the muscle builds in strength, size, and stamina, we can move towards larger acts.

Sometimes, being courageous is examining our own attitudes and perspective to the things we fear. Is the worst thing that could happen really that bad?

Finally, I believe that often, demonstrating courage comes down to not over-analysing.  Ready, fire, aim is not always a bad approach when it comes to being brave.  Acting on my intuition or gut response has become a highly effective compass for decision making.

What courageous behaviour have you witnessed which made a huge difference in your workplace?


  1. […] has made my list for sharing her inspirational story with the world, demonstrating exceptional courage, and working peacefully towards resolution and furthering her […]

  2. Andrea Bruce on February 25, 2013 at 6:43 pm

    Fantastic read!

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts from The Leader's Digest

Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

Welcome to

The Leader's Digest

Subscribe to The Leader’s Digest

Receive trending leadership topics and tips, straight to your inbox.

Please enter your name.
Please enter a valid email address.
Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.

Internationally Recognised


The Leader's Digest App