Lead with Courage

Courage Way

Lead with Courage


Leaders must regularly reach inside and draw courage to accomplish difficult goals. Leadership is a daily practice to become your best self and help others along the way.

So explains Shelly Francis in her new book, The Courage Way: Leading and Living with Integrity . Shelly has plenty of experience in her methods having served as the marketing and communications director at the Center for Courage & Renewal since 2012. The Center has over 5,000 participants in their programs each year.

I recently asked Shelly to share her views on courage and leadership.



5 Types of Courage

You talk about different types of courage. Why is courage at work so vitally important?

The five types of courage I describe include physical, moral, social, creative, and collective courage. The first four were named by psychologist Rollo May in his 1974 book, The Courage to Create. Even without more detail, I bet you can begin to imagine a workplace situation calling for each type of courage.

So many hours of our days are spent in the workplace—and we want those hours to matter, and we want to find meaning and purpose in our work. That trend manifests itself in each of the types of courage described in the book.

It takes physical courage to set healthy boundaries and practices for sustaining your energy rather than succumbing to burnout and overwork. In doing so, though, you risk being seen as weak or uncommitted.

It takes moral courage to speak truth to power, like we’re seeing with people sharing their stories of sexual abuse and harassment in the workplace, or reporting unfair business practices. But again, you risk losing your job, your privacy, retaliation, and so on.

It takes social courage to show up with your whole self, to risk sharing your best ideas, to risk being wrong, to be vulnerable and honest about acknowledging your limitations, or to risk asking for help (like you did in a recent blog, Skip).

It takes courage to be innovative in the commonly used sense of “creative,” the courage to risk and fail and try again. But what about the courage to create a culture where people can truly flourish? Yet again, to go against the status quo and try new ways of “being and doing” at work can be risky.

Collective courage is what we need most—people working together with integrity, commitment, and a capacity to cross lines of difference. Without such courage, we risk complex, volatile issues getting even worse. We risk missing a chance to make things better.



5 Ingredients of the Courage Way

You talk about 5 ingredients of the courage way. How did you develop these? 

The five ingredients for cultivating courage are three powerful concepts of true self, trust, community and two practices of paradox and reflection. These quintessential concepts showed up in the lives of the 120-plus leaders I interviewed. I was watching for patterns that seemed to sum up the principles, practices and core values that the Center for Courage & Renewal has been developing over 25 years.

5 Essentials of Courage. Copyright Shelly Francis. Used by Permission.

Our basic premise is that inside of each person is the essential true self: That part of us that continues to grow and yet somehow, deep down, remains constant. Accessing this core inner wisdom is a key capacity of self-aware leaders. Acting from that authentic place builds trust within yourself but also between people. It’s vital to have a trustworthy community you can count on to support your growth as a leader, who can speak honestly even when it’s difficult. And building community across lines of difference is more vital than ever these days.

The practice of paradox may sound really strange without a longer conversation (or reading the book!). Basically, this is about having the capacity as a leader to move beyond either/or thinking and learn to hold tensions of seeming opposites in productive ways. When you begin to look for paradox, it helps reframe problems into possibilities. It’s more than polarity management. Practicing paradox is to recognize the flow between our inner lives and our outer lives. Our inner lives affect how we show up in the world. What happens outside, good or bad, flows back in, where it needs to be processed and integrated.

Reflection, the fifth ingredient, relates to these first four ideas. Reflecting on each point helps leaders become more self aware, authentic, and trustworthy—and effective. It’s about the inner work of leadership.

All that sounds good to have, maybe even obvious. The Courage Way describes the “how” with practices leaders can use to develop more self awareness, trust and community by paying attention to paradox and reflecting on each of these concepts.



Leadership Requires Inner Work

Many people are surprised that leadership requires so much inner work. What is your experience with this? 

It’s so much easier to blame outside circumstances when things go wrong. However, leadership is about taking responsibility for circumstances and your part in creating the conditions where good work can happen. That requires being adept at reflecting, looking inward with honesty about the part you play in successes and challenges. It’s common to hear people complain about the elephant in the room, but we rarely notice (or admit) that sometimes we are that elephant.


Trust. Why is it the most fundamental part of cultivating courage?

Courage takes trust—trust in yourself, trust among people, and trust in the balance of life overall.  When you trust in yourself by truly knowing who you are, your values and commitments, and the solid ground on which you stand, you make better decisions.

When you act from that place, your integrity shows and that builds relational trust.

Google did a study of successful teams and found out that “psychological safety” was the number one dynamic needed for working well together. That’s about relational trust—knowing it’s safe to risk and fail and the courage to be vulnerable. While we want to hire trustworthy people, it’s also a leader’s responsibility to create and contribute to a trustworthy culture with their own trustworthy behavior.

A surprising thing I learned about relational trust is that it has a lot to do with our own perceptions of other people. And that means recognizing our own biases and assumptions, and being curious about the real story of people’s lives. Trust takes a capacity to connect authentically.



The courage to question and listen struck me as I read that chapter. Tell us more about that part of the equation.

We have a specific practice in Circles of Trust of asking open, honest questions. Let me define that kind of question. First, it goes back to the premise of true self – trusting that people have wisdom within themselves, and it’s your job as a leader to help them access it. An open, honest question is one you couldn’t possibly know the answer to, which is asked in service of the other person. Such questions empower others to make wise decisions based on their own genuine inner knowing, rather than just accepting someone else’s advice.  Open, honest questions are a form of humility in leadership, too. It’s easier, but can be a form of arrogance, to ask questions that try to manipulate people into the answer you want them to find.

A flip side of asking such questions is becoming a better listener and recognizing that listening is just as important of a contribution as talking.  This form of conversation supports a workplace culture of compassion and empathy, one where people feel valued. As one leader said, “I’ve realized there is no greater gift you can give someone than deeply listening to them.”

Asking open, honest questions can really shift how we relate in our roles as parents and friends, as well.



Walk Your Talk

The subtitle of the book includes the word integrity. Talk about integrity and its interrelationship with courage.Shelly L Francis

When there is consistency between what people say and do, we call that integrity. We say they “walk their talk” or “keep their word.” We sense integrity when a person’s work appears to be guided by a deeper moral-ethical commitment.

Integrity is more than what we normally think of as ethical behavior. Integrity has to do with integrating our strengths and our limits, or “shadows and light.” As the playwright philosopher Florida Scott Maxwell put it, “You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done, which may take some time, you are fierce with reality.”



It takes courage to recognize and own up to the full reality of our lives and leadership. Integrity as self-awareness requires reflection on a regular basis, and then it takes courage to act on the truths you discover.  It takes a lot of courage to look inward and then move forward. But when you know your true self and lead from that place, you become the type of leader the world needs today: wise, kind, and real.



For more information, see The Courage Way: Leading and Living with Integrity .

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