The Secret to Transformational Leadership

Why courage–a trait long discouraged by many companies–is now an essential component of cultural change.

“You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.”

– William Faulkner

A System of Fear

Following the 2008-2009 financial crisis, the pendulum of decision making swung firmly to conservatism and the avoidance of risk became the key focus for many industries and organizations. Many would say it was long overdue but it was a relatively binary and extreme reaction. It led to a nervousness to act and a clampdown on experimental activity in many quarters. Armies of people were hired, especially in financial institutions, to hard-wire risk avoidance into their processes and systems. This also surfaced in many other industries outside of financial services, with systemic fear not only preventing people and organizations from stepping forward and innovating but paralyzing daily progress through red tape and lack of decision making.

Fear-driven protectionism is not a modern phenomenon, in fact, it’s natural. From our prehistoric origins, we’ve relied on survival instincts, humans have barely evolved beyond their preponderance to scan their environment continually for threats. Yes, we all seek reward but we are much more motivated by loss aversion. Our brains have roughly five times the receptors for threat as we do for reward. This leads us all to constantly look for comfort and familiarity because that is more likely to lead to survival. Humans are also influenced by the group they belong to (read organization here) and the need to continue to belong to the group. Building systems of risk avoidance helps conservatism take hold and the tendency to slow down spreads at the speed of light.

We Need Courage, Not Heroes

It takes courage to break out of that cycle. You have to be brave to take a risk and swim against the organizational tide. Most definitions of leadership include a notion of being at the front, bringing others into a new reality. It’s vital to be clear on what you are doing, where you are going and why, especially if you are going to take a leap forward and risk personal and professional capital on your ‘unusual’ decisions and actions. As Nelson Mandela learned: “Courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” Unfortunately, courageous behavior often becomes riskier for leaders the more senior they get. They have more to lose. And consequently, fear rises.

Courage is not a new phenomenon in leadership but we don’t see it as a prominent focus in many organizations today – it’s seemingly lacking from many organizational values or leadership behaviors. Perhaps because we are trying to get away from the traditional, machismo image of a hero leader – so often portrayed as male – courage is not fashionable today. That’s a shame because now is the time that we need it most. Now and in the future.

Courage in leadership can be about being part of a team. It can be about backing other people to give their ideas traction – it doesn’t have to be about direct personal delivery. We often put our favorite sports teams on a pedestal because of the courage they demonstrate in fighting together to the end against their arch-rivals and being able to win as a team on the biggest stages, under unbelievable pressure.

Courage Is a Core Competency for Leaders

In 2018, research for one of our global clients into the requirements to lead their transformation journey revealed the missing link to being courageous. They knew the changes ahead would be difficult and instilling the courage in their leadership and culture was central to raising performance, increasing accountability and driving greater innovation. Equipping leaders with the techniques and permission to show bravery and listen fearlessly is playing a significant part in their turnaround story.

In today’s world of constant change and digitization, leadership is becoming even more important. Our 2019 global research examining the cultural levers for growth demonstrated that in digital transformations, leadership’s role is elevated to be even more fundamental than during a traditional transformation. In fact, building a culture of empowerment and innovation came in the top three priorities for transforming the employee experience – an increase of 65% from the previous year. The transformational levers we uncovered that related most to leadership were setting the ambition and roadmap, role modeling, aligning incentives to break down silos and pushing decision rights downwards – each requiring courage to challenge the status quo, push forward, stay the course and trust others to deliver. And all of these create very uncomfortable situations for a leader to face.

A Culture of Bold Moves

What can you do to build courage into your leadership cadre, your change leadership, and your entire organization? Most of our leadership work is in transformation leadership. There is no silver bullet. The answer lies in the specifics of your situation and ambition. However, there are three things that set the foundations for courage:

  1. Coupling purpose with ambition so that your transformation has a clear meaning and a North Star – making it easier to be brave in pursuit of it.
  2. Equipping leaders with mechanisms to be bold, for instance, developing personalized trigger plans where they focus on their style, their routine and their big decision-making moments, enabling them to prepare for and be courageous at key moments.
  3. Focus on a culture that inspires courage, where leaders and the organization make bold growth moves – creating safe experimentation spaces, valuing improvement ideas, championing customer experience and balancing purpose with profit. Courage is part of your personal character but it is also part of your corporate character, and thankfully it is possible to build it.


Courage is a very powerful and engaging force in any organization. People love to follow brave leaders. It’s difficult to take a bold step into the unknown but that is what’s required if you are to lead lasting transformation. Don’t take it all on yourself. Take a deep breath and take people with you.

Interested to learn more about honing your leadership skills for the digital age? Get in touch