How You Can Lead With Courage

I sat next to Carolyn, a retired history teacher on a plane out of DC last week.  She’s got a cool job: between February and June, she leaves her home in Dayton almost every week and heads to DC or Williamsburg or sometimes Boston, where she teaches visiting 5th or 8th graders about American history.  She taught me quick lessons. The two that stuck were how Martha Washington risked everything to leave Mount Vernon and deliver provisions to her husband General George and his starving, freezing troops at Valley Forge. She also told me about how at the battle of Monongahela during the French-Indian War,  Washington had two horses shot out from under him. Like Alexander and other great commanders, he fought among and even at the front of his troops.

Such courage. Both Martha and George consciously got unsafe. They emerged from the crowd. They exposed themselves to attack, setting aside their personal safety in service to their values.

What does courage mean to or for you as an Everyday Leader?

I think that where Martha and George stood out, got physically vulnerable and exposed, courage for us also means stepping out from the crowd, exposing ourselves to risk.  But for us, the risk is seldom physical, but social and psychic.  We feel “unsafe” socially.  Examples abound:  When we stand up and confront an authority, we feel at risk. When we stop and talk to a homeless person – we step outside the safety of us “normal” people – and our intelligence and naivete may even be questioned if we offer that person a dollar.  When we question politically correct statements, we risk being marginalized by our Fox or MSNBC friends.

I’ve had two students who embody psychic courage to me.  You know why?  Sadly, it’s because they are eager to learn and they show it.  One snaps her fingers when she’s touched or inspired by another student. The other will burst out, “Oh!!!” And then he’ll share an idea that has completely captured him.  I feel like I can hear other students thinking, “What’s wrong with them? They stick out like a sore thumb!”  Human sheep that we are, we learn from about middle school on to “look cool,” to stay safe in the herd. I love that they show and maybe rekindle values of encouragement, enthusiasm and love of learning.  Their actions throw these royal trump cards upon the boring fives, sixes and sevens being held laid by the classroom herd.

When was the last time you risked your reputation, your normalcy, your safety in the herd?  If you have powerful values – and I know you do!!!! – here are things to try this week in a meeting of the herd (whether or not the lead or bellwether sheep is in attendance):

  • Tell a co-worker how much you love what they have to say.
  • Snap your fingers when someone says something you love.
  • Tell your boss how much you love something they do for you and the team (the herd teaches: don’t be a suck-up)
  • Say: “Guys, that’s my fault; sorry; I’m working on it.”
  • Say: “I’m sorry. I don’t get why we’re doing this.”

How often do you risk your safety in the crowd, your image as a team player, or your reputation, when you have opportunities to

Lead with your best self?!

  • Good advice, Dan! I had a blind student once who took notes with a braille slate. I could always tell when she was excited because the wrote faster and faster – the stylus makes a tapping noise which accelerated at those moments. Now she’s university faculty and, I suspect, getting her students audibly excited too.


  • Excellent thoughts, Dan. I just came from interviewing top graduating seniors, and this is the type of advice we want to provide them – – – so as they continue their graduate education and go out into the world, they really are ready to “change the world” and to lead.

    Your story and advice today fits right in with how we are attempting to help and guide them to the future.

    Thanks, Jackie

  • Wow Dan! Loved this. It really struck me that the ultimate example of courage, standing up against the status quo and loving others was Jesus. Following your advice is following His!

    With love,

    • Hey Oldest Sister Kathy,
      It’s great to see your name and your contribution here. If Jesus was anything — and he was a lot — he was an iconoclast. He stood for what he stood for, from bolting from his folks as a teenager, to cavorting with prositutes, lepers and tax collectors, he was not one for the herd!
      Thanks for weighing in!

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