One of the first life lessons of my career also made the biggest impression. Maybe you recall one of those types of stories in your life.
I had taken a job as an entry-level business development officer for a small start-up bank in West Los Angeles. My job responsibilities consisted of qualifying, securing and transferring profitable clients in the bank’s target market, perhaps the most important part of the business for a start-up. Thrown into the fire without any bank training, I learned the hard way—by making cold calls on prospective clients. Nonetheless, I had to show my boss, the president, that he had hired the right person to bring in lucrative businesses. The only problem was that I didn’t know how to assess a “profitable piece of business.”
In the beginning, I met with a variety of “Mr. Big Shots” who attempted to manipulate or intimidate my rookie judgment. Many times my choice of action with these types of meetings was to walk away from the business; however, I quickly learned banking processes and regulations, built rapport with our target market, refined my discerning eye for profitable business, and advanced to assistant vice president. Eventually, I became vice president of private banking, and throughout it all, I never regretted a single courage-based decision that I made with those life lessons.
So what remains as the key linchpin to my life lessons? Courage! Don’t ever consider selling your soul—walk away! In other words, try (and try again) not to swallow your voice for a piece of business, even if it looks like “the big one!” The key here is to understand the kind of courage that supports effective leadership. I don’t mean bravado or physical courage like our culture supports and highlights, but the kind of day-to-day courage that invaluable business leaders employ consistently—everything from speaking up during a company meeting to overcoming an obstacle that hinders professional advancement. These small instances often create the defining moments of a person’s career while exemplifying personal courage.
The cultural issue is that most people mistakenly believe that courage is only relevant during particularly perilous times. As a result, they don’t perceive the courageous nature of exploring new ideas, confronting gossip, embracing reflection, transcending rejection or taking the initiative to stamp out status quo. In reality, each person has the capacity to be a courageous leader regardless of your position! How you confront workday issues and contribute to your own professional advancement speak volumes about your personal courage and set a leadership example others can follow.
So what makes the difference? The difference lies in understanding the deeper meaning of courage, which comes from the French word corage, meaning “heart and spirit.” In other words, acting with courage is really about acting from your heart and spirit—from the center of your being. By identifying with your true heart-and-spirit Self, you claim the courage that empowers you to overcome personal limitations—the kind of limitations that prevent us all from providing effective business leadership. Since our limitations vary widely, each of us must reflect on our own life lessons in order to recognize the misconceptions and attachments that keep us stuck in our false identities and counterproductive patterns. There are many ways a woman can boost her courageous leadership skills at work (and home). Below are just three examples:
- Encourage Candor
People at work witness what we stand for, and straight (unambiguous) talk gets attention because it is uncomfortable for most people. Speaking with courage means learning to speak with your own voice, to express the truth that flows from your own “heart and spirit”—the opposite of fear of ridicule and being ostracized. Candor is a cousin to courage.* It is only by learning to express ourselves from our own courageous identities can we begin to employ the courage action called “confront uncomfortable truths” that moves us beyond ambiguity (the courage obstacle).
Standing proud in her Hispanic heritage, Angela Cortez, connected her love for reading and writing with confronting uncomfortable truths for the disadvantaged. But it wasn’t always that way. For over twenty years, Angela lived with the regret of not confronting an uncomfortable truth in high school. Finally, during a career as an op-ed writer for a major newspaper, she wrote a personally liberating commentary called “Learning to Speak Up.” “I failed my schoolmate that day, and I’m sorry. But I’m also grateful to her, because the incident she endured taught me to never be silent again.” It takes conscious choice to dive into your heart and spirit to claim your true identity. Angela knew in her heart that a wrong had been committed, but her failure to speak up left her stuck in ambiguity. None of us can step up unless we find the courage to stand for what we represent.
- Recognize Career Defining Moments That Bust Status Quo
Career-defining moments represent crucial points along your career path, places where you contemplate the virtues that compose your character and choose to step up to the next rung on the ladder or, lacking sufficient courage, slip back down. Every obstacle you face at work represents a potential career-defining moment. By simply recognizing these workplace obstacles as defining moments (things like failing to get an overdue promotion, or enduring verbal intimidation) you begin to rely on your personal, courage-based assets.
Unfortunately, many women miss the opportunities inherent in workplace obstacles and their responses reflect an underlying sense of self-defeat. They may perceive these potentially defining moments as just “part of the job,” or they may feel that in some way they deserve unfair treatment. They take on the role of martyr or victim in order to “keep the peace” or maintain the status quo, further stifling their true heart-and-spirit Self. Frequently questioning your status quo moves you from the dominant “mind-will” to heartfelt will. Heartfelt will expresses itself when you give yourself permission to claim your courage.
A working mother who witnesses her boss harassing a co-worker must face the truth and take realistic action. Since this defining moment could affect her livelihood, taking action requires making tough choices. The woman’s courage holds the capacity to change the situation, to right a wrong and to model courage. Denial produces a false peace that inevitably unravels.
Staying stuck in status quo provides a sense of safety for the ego but seeks to eliminate mystery and the creative discovery it engenders. More importantly, status quo fosters denial by silencing courageous ideas and stymieing courage behaviors. On the opposite side of the coin, the energetic action generated by courage creates a different type of safety. How? When the corporate ethic honors everyone’s “courageous intent,” truth prevails.
- Demonstrate Spiritual Intelligence (SQ)
Physicist Danah Zohar’s research defines courage as one of the levels of Spiritual Intelligence (SQ) or wisdom. She writes in SQ, Spiritual Intelligence, the Ultimate Intelligence, “To have high SQ is to be able to use the spiritual to bring greater context and meaning to living a richer and more meaningful life, to achieve a sense of personal wholeness, purpose and direction.” Ironically, in order to step up the leadership ladder to advance your career, you must delve deeper into your spiritual Self to find a solid foundation that supports living a courageous life. The real challenge is to face and act on the insights that only such self-realization will bring.
There is no “one size fits all” formula or courage pill for overcoming obstacles at work. The size and importance of obstacles change as does our capacity to deal with them. Only by journeying inward can we each identify the appropriate courage action that will advance our lives and careers beyond the obstacles we face at any given moment. True courage opens the door to spiritual awareness, and in welcoming spiritual awareness, you learn to refine your talents so they become more clearly visible revealing your Spiritual Intelligence (SQ).
CEO Katherine Graham and her team at the Washington Post stood behind the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, even while the Nixon administration made threats and the company’s stock dropped. Revealing the values in which she believed most strongly, Katherine displayed a courageous combination of integrity and high standards. The merit of Katherine’s resolute spiritual courage was reflected in her refusal to play it safe, dodge discomfort or hedge her bets—all examples of Spiritual Intelligence (SQ). Holding herself accountable for her decisions, she endured the temporary discomfort of outside pressures and the potential for failure. When was the last time you failed? Did you use that failure as a gain?
Are you willing to give yourself permission to claim your courage?
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