Workplace Courage: When Vulnerability Signals Strength

After years of teaching “tools” to all levels of practicing and aspiring leaders, I realized something was fundamentally missing. More and more, it was clear to me that people can accumulate lots of sophisticated tools (all those fancy frameworks, formulas, findings and fact patterns) in an expensive, impressive-looking toolkit, and even know which tools are useful for addressing which kinds of managerial problems, but ultimately this won’t be worth much if they don’t have the courage to use those tools when the time arises. I started sharing this perspective with hundreds of MBA, Executive MBA and Executive Education audiences and was surprised by how strongly, and consistently, people agreed. “I need to learn to be more courageous” or “I need to help my team [or my organization] be more courageous,” they said, along with, “Why don’t we learn more about this?”

A Measure of Workplace Courage

Unfortunately, when I tried to start answering that last question I quickly realized that this was an area where there just wasn’t enough good social science being done, or enough associated efforts to help people develop competent courage based on that science. So, about four years ago I started trying to do something about both of those gaps. To understand what workplace courage is really about, I’ve collected data from thousands of individuals across a huge array of industries, organizations and positions (from entry-level to the C-suite). I’ve concluded that it’s reasonable to think about workplace courage as simply “acts, related to one’s work, that are done for a worthy cause/reason, despite perceived risks, threats or obstacles to the self.” Those risks can be economic/professional (e.g., lost job or opportunity for advancement), social (e.g., damaged reputation or relationships), psychological (e.g., shattered confidence) or physical (e.g., violence encountered from employees or customers).

Along with my Ph.D. student (Evan Bruno), I’ve developed the Workplace Courage Acts Index (WCAI) so we can start understanding in detail what forms courage takes, and how it might be stimulated. The WCAI is comprised of the 35 behaviors reported consistently as requiring courage in the work domain; the survey itself can be used to understand how much courage each of those behaviors is seen to take in one’s own workgroup or organization and, correspondingly, how (in)frequently each behavior is exhibited. You might learn, for example, that it’s seen to reflect a “great amount” of courage in your organization to “speak up to a boss about his/her inappropriate or hurtful interpersonal treatment” and that, as a result, it is reported as personally seen by your employees “never” or “only once every few years.”

The Strong Leader and Voluntary Vulnerability

There are too many fascinating findings emerging from this research to share in this one short piece, but let me share one insight here — about leader vulnerability and courage — that might be particularly surprising to some. Across multiple data collections in which we asked respondents to describe a courageous act, we saw leaders being described as courageous for what can only be called “voluntary vulnerability.” People called leaders courageous for voluntarily moving toward negative feedback or problems that their role allowed them to easily avoid. They called leaders courageous for asking for and accepting help, for admitting they don’t know it all, for apologizing publicly, and for showing emotions like sadness or fear.

Through many conversations over the years, I’ve learned that many leaders avoid these displays of vulnerability like the plague. They think that these kinds of behaviors will make them look weak, will make people less likely to respect them, or less likely to follow them or work hard for them. From what I can tell, it’s often exactly the opposite. In fact, maybe our whole notion of “strong leader” needs updating if we actually want leaders who can learn fast enough, and broadly enough, to avoid ultimate disaster. And if we want leaders to be seen as truly human, not artificially superhuman. Consider this story a manager shared about a senior leader in his organization:

He’s so tough, he almost has like a supernatural effect over people. But he told a story [in front of 600–800 sales representatives and managers] about an ill uncle [who] passed from cancer. … this is somebody that probably sometimes maybe tried to build up his tough guy image, but to just share something that was very personal and to not be afraid to break down and show emotion on the stage … It was just one of the more amazing things I’ve seen [here], for somebody to show the human element of it. The reps were like, “That was the most incredible thing I’ve ever experienced in my life.”

The Case of Cascade Engineering

The notion of voluntary vulnerability also allows us to see courage where we might otherwise miss it or exclude it from the realm of possibility. For example, when we evaluate those who are rich or powerful or in a majority group it’s easy to conclude that they don’t need courage. What’s the risk, we might ask, for someone with tons of money, or a secure position, to swing for the fences and strike out a few times? This ignores, I think, how at least some of these people use their resources to keep pushing boundaries in the service of social and economic improvement for others. For example, Fred Keller — the founder and chair of Cascade Engineering — has built a company that employs 1,600 people and that has been consistently profitable for four decades. His company has successfully transitioned hundreds of former welfare recipients or felons into permanent positions at Cascade, and has a powerful anti-racism program that has led to far better race relations inside the plant than in the surrounding community.

Cascade achieved these things because Keller had the humility to admit what he didn’t know and willingness to learn more to correct the mistakes they made as they innovated. He actively sought help from those within and beyond Cascade who could help him understand intergenerational poverty, the enduring effects of slavery and racism, and the challenges of transitioning from prison to productive roles in civil society. An executive on Keller’s team described it this way:

One privilege of being an upper-middle class white male is that you don’t have to be vulnerable. Yet Fred has allowed himself to be vulnerable time and again. It’s a big deal for someone to speak out for populations [those on welfare or ex-felons] that have no champions. It’s a big deal to admit your own prior shortcomings when having dialogues about racism with employees during the anti-racism rollout. As a business leader, he doesn’t have to do any of these things that don’t necessarily make him more money. But he does.

That, indeed, sounds a lot like leadership courage to me.

About the Faculty

James R. Detert

An expert on leadership and ethics, Detert’s research focuses on workplace courage, why people do or don’t speak up, and ethical decision-making and behavior. His research and consulting have been conducted across a variety of global high-technology and service-oriented industries, in addition to public sector institutions, including K–12 education.

Detert has... Learn More