Acts of Courage: Stepping Up, Stepping Out, and Standing Up

This week I want to share an excellent piece written by a friend and colleague, Jennifer Hart, who is an executive coach and trainer in Washington, DC.

Courage lies at the heart of nearly everything I address with my clients. It is immensely personal. What comes naturally and seems easy to one person may be terrifying and nearly insurmountable to another.

But courage is a skill we all can – and should – continually develop through an incremental process involving three key elements.  These are: Stepping Up, Stepping Out, and Standing Up.

Stepping Up: The Courage to Act

Stepping up requires initiative and tolerance for measured risk. We are raised to think before we act – generally a sensible approach to life. But somewhere along the way we begin to overthink and stop acting altogether.

As we progress through our lives and careers, we believe there is more to lose. We fear looking foolish. We dread reliving pain. So stepping up takes courage. Start by:

  • Saying yes! There are studies devoted to the power of this one word. “No” is vital to setting boundaries (more in Standing Up.) But even though there are almost always more reasons to say “no” than to say “yes” – this should not be a default response. So say “yes” when a new opportunity comes up at work. Next? Agree to do something unfamiliar or uncomfortable (more in Stepping Out). And after that? Volunteer before you’re asked.
  • Making decisions. Many of us wait until we are officially in management roles to make big decisions at work. By then it’s too late. Starting or transitioning your career? For every problem you bring to your manager, propose at least one solution. Already leading? Avoid the “consensus” trap. Hear out different perspectives – but make and commit to a decision.
  • Being accountable and responsible. Stepping up is seeing your commitment through. It also means admitting when you are wrong, need help, or fail to achieve a goal. This is all human. 

Stepping up is a critical first step for building courage, and lays the groundwork for the next element: stepping out.

Stepping Out: The Courage to Try

Stepping out involves identifying growth opportunities outside your comfort zone. It requires vision (WHY am I putting myself through this?) and self-awareness. We all have natural preferences which delineate this zone. But courage defines whether it limits us (“I will NEVER be a good networker!”) – or liberates us (“I dread networking. But I really want to meet X, so I will be well-rested and prepared to step out.”)

Here’s a quick process you can use: 

  • First, tap into emotion. “What is the worst that can happen? What’s the best?” Sit with both. Remember, the outcome will most likely fall somewhere in the middle, closer to the “best” side of the spectrum than the “worst” one.
  • Next, appeal to logic. “What are the benefits of stepping out of my comfort zone?” List tangible benefits (e.g., reputation, financial gain) and motivating factors (e.g., learning, helping others).
  • Finally, consider timing. “What else is going on in my life right now?” If your stress levels are elevated, it may not be best time to leap too far out of your comfort zone. “How long will I need / do I have to recover from taking this step?” There’s a reason you shouldn’t lift weights every day. Similarly, when stepping out, allow recovery time to build both strength and resilience.

Stepping out sets the stage for the final act – standing up.

Standing Up: The Courage to Advocate

As social beings, humans hold a deep-rooted desire to belong. We fear rejection. We feel exposed when we stand up. We feel vulnerable when we stand alone. But sometimes this is exactly what we need. The prerequisite to standing up is knowing your value – and your values.

Know Your Value

Women tend to underestimate their accomplishments and see themselves as less skilled and successful than they actually are. They attribute success to luck.

Men are more likely to overestimate their success and attribute it to skills/abilities. One of the most daunting (therefore, courageous) acts for many women is to be their own advocates. It is also one of the most important. Stand up by:

  • Noticing where and when you undermine yourself. Whenever you find yourself using minimizing language, (“Oh, it was nothing.”), stop and simply say, “Thank you.”
  • Saying No! “Yes” is important. But many women (even in powerful positions!) devalue themselves by taking on the thankless or mundane tasks others avoid. Sometimes it takes even more courage to say “no.”

Know Your Values

Cor, the root word for courage, is Latin for heart. Values come straight from the heart and factor into every decision we make. As “team players,” women are adept at quieting the inner voice that tells us that something doesn’t sit right. But values dissonance erodes both our courage and our confidence.

Here’s a quick exercise:

  • Think about a challenge you’ve been avoiding. Is it something you’re asking for (e.g. a raise), or doing (e.g., giving performance feedback)?
  • Identify your discomfort. Is it past negative experiences? Unknown future outcomes? Or both?
  • Identify the core value at the heart of this issue. It may center on goals (e.g., I want to be valued and respected) or principles (e.g., my team member deserves a fair opportunity to improve).
  • Center yourself around that value. For some, this might be a mantra. For others, it’s remembering why this value is so important.
  • Finally, speak up and speak out. Proactively raise challenging issues. Share an opposing viewpoint. Provide or even seek tough feedback. Don’t ignore your discomfort – but remember that it will get easier.

Courage Begins With Small Steps                                                                             

When we step too far beyond our comfort zone in one go, we actually overload our fear centers and reinforce our negative beliefs. (“I’m never doing anything like that again!!!”) Instead, experiment with “high stretch low risk” actions.

For me, a “high stretch low risk” action is to attend a yoga class. While I love the philosophy of yoga, I’ve had awful experiences practicing in the past – including a class straight out of Mean Girls. I dread the idea of walking into another studio – the high stretch. The low risk? If I faceplant and people laugh, my ego (and body!) might be bruised, but I WILL survive. I might even laugh with them. More importantly, this small step out will build my reserves of courage to go for something bigger. 

Jennifer Hart is an executive coach, trainer, and consultant with a passion for bridging the gaps between leadership and communication and aligning stakeholders with divergent viewpoints. Her mission is to help expert practitioners increase their personal impact, be better colleagues, and become great leaders. You can reach Jennifer by email here.

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