Courage Goes to Work: How to Build Backbones, Boost Performance and Get
By Bill Treasurer
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
An editorial board bus tour of a community health centre. A grant to
bankroll service learning projects. A media relations summer camp for
non-profits. And a fundraising dinner for a community leader and her
That’s what I’d put on my personal highlight reel for 2008. The
projects called for a little leadership, a whole lot of collaboration
and a willingness to take more than a few leaps of faith. With all four
initiatives, there was a problem to solve, a need to meet, an
opportunity to seize and I was lucky enough to be in the right place to
help make something happen.
I’m ending the year with more of what author and Giant Leap Consulting
founder Bill Treasurer calls try and trust courage. Try courage comes
from taking initiative and attempting something for the very first
Trust courage is about relinquishing control, relying on others and
taking risks on other people stepping up tothe plate. “The act of
trusting often requires letting go of our need to control outcomes or
people, our defence mechanisms and our preconceptions about what is
right,” says Treasurer.
Along with my highlight reel, I have some lowlights from the year that
was. To avoid making a career-limiting move, I won’t go into the
details. But I can confess that in every instance I pulled up short on
what Treasurer calls tell courage. I didn’t speak with candor or
conviction or voice the minority opinion, even when it was what
everyone else was thinking. Instead, I bit my tongue and went along to
“You see tell courage at work when employees tactfully but truthfully
provide tough feedback. You also see it when workers raise their hands
to ask for help , or when they tell you about mistakes they’ve made
before you ask.”
Treasurer says the triple combo of try, trust and tell courage is the
key to employee engagement, passion, motivation and commitment.
“Courage is the lifeblood of leadership, entrepreneurship and
innovation. In fact, courage is so critical to these things that they
can’t exist without it.”
While Treasurer calls courage the premier business virtue, he claims
it’s in short supply. Too many organizations have too many comfortable
or fearful workers. Just enough is good enough. Staff play it safe and
spend all their time preserving what is rather than pursuing what could
Treasurer’s coined the term comfeartable for underperforming workers
who adhere to the law of staying safe at all costs. No initiative. No
risk-taking. No candor. No making waves. And, as result, no
Anyone in a leadership role has two choices. Inspire and transform
comfeartable workers or breed more workers lacking in try, trust and
tell courage. What you do and say goes a long way in filling or
spilling their trust buckets.
“Managers who fill people with fear in order to motivate them often do
so for reasons of efficiency or immaturity,” says Treasurer. “It simply
takes less time, thought and technique to bark an order than it does to
motivate people according to their interests, passion and
capabilities.” Yet fear kills morale, erodes trust and builds
resentment. Not exactly ideal conditions for the fostering and
flourishing of innovation, quality or exceptional customer service.
So how can you can build a more courageous workforce? Jump first and be
a role model. There are two ways to get folks to do something they
don’t want to do or don't think they can pull off. You can push from behind
or attract from the front. According to Treasurer, management by
jumping first and gaining first-hand experience on the frontlines is
the most powerful and effective way of convincing comfeartable
workers to do uncomfortable and courageous things.
Make it safe for employees to take smart risks. Asking them to be
innovative and then telling them not to screw up and acting like the
sky is falling when mistakes happen is not all that helpful. Instead,
value forward-failing and non-habitual mistakes. Anyone who’s
mistake-free isn’t trying hard enough to take the risks that lead to
You also need to provide air cover so your staff have the time and
space to be courageous.
“While workers recognize the legitimate need for you to be responsive
to your boss’s demands, they lose confidence in you if you respond
impulsively to executive requests without considering the impact that
those requests may have on them.”
Along with building safety nets and standing up for your staff, you can
turn fear into the fuel that drives folks to do courageous things.
Constantly modulating comfort will also spur workers to try new things
and gain confidence in using their newfound skills.
“I want you to live a long, healthy and courageous life,” says
Treasurer. “And I want you to have a long, prosperous and courageous
career. What I don’t want is for you to have career and life longevity
only to end up sitting on a barstool someday, complaining about all the
things you wish you had done.
“Regrets, especially over things we should have done but didn’t because
we were too comfortable or afraid when we faced them, burn hot in our
souls. The risks we regret the most are always the ones we didn’t take.”
So if you’re still searching for a New Year’s resolution, commit to
ending 2009 with a blockbuster highlight reel loaded with try, trust
and tell courage at work and in the community.