“There are stories in the news left and right about the lack of integrity corporate leadership and government. But I knew there were good leaders out there. What does it look like if you’re leading from the heart?”
Shelly Francis is author of the new book “The Courage Way: Leading and Living with Integrity,” which she wrote on behalf of the Center for Courage & Renewal.
The book is the result of years of research into what makes a great leader — and what happens when leaders live out their values. She interviewed 120 people about their journeys as leaders. She found that when people lead from their hearts, trying their best to stay authentic and self-aware, they build more trusting relationships.
Break Out of Fight-or-Flight Mode
In her research, Francis identified four common “F” responses: fight, flight, freeze and flock (that’s thinking about the world as “us versus them.”). But someone usually loses when we default to those stress responses.
So, she looked to a new “F” response: fortify. When you fortify yourself, you reflect and focus.
Find New Kinds of Courage
Francis started seeing a few patterns, common ways great leaders fortify themselves and lead more courageously. “We usually think about courage as physical courage — athletes, soldiers — or speaking out for justice,” she says. But there are other kinds of courage we see all the time but don’t name:
- Social courage: Being vulnerable and authentic, and having the courage to connect across lines of difference. Brene Brown talks about social courage in her book “Daring Greatly.”
- Creative courage: Creating conversations that matter, creating solutions and creating communities.
- Collective courage: Coming together for the greater good, such as in social movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. Or like Elon Musk, inspiring his SpaceX engineers and people around the world to find new ways to think about space.
“All of those kinds of courage might seem elusive,” Francis says, “but you can access them by leading from the heart and having self knowledge.”
Cultivate Your Courage as a Leader
That all sounds amazing, but how do we get there? I asked Francis how leaders can develop their courage. How can we all grow as people and as leaders?
She says it’s all about starting with yourself — leading from within. “Get clear on your own values and who you are as a leader,” she says. Ask yourself:
- Who am I?
- What do I want to bring to my work and my team? What do I want to contribute?
- Are there places where I need to grow?
“That kind of reflection takes time, and it’s best done in a supportive place,” she says. She suggests journaling and having conversations with a trustworthy friend as good ways to start.
One of her favorite stories from the book is about a physician who was leading a major endeavor to build a new clinic. It was a big job and involved consolidating a lot of practices. The culture she started with came with a lot of hurt feelings and a lack of trust. As a leader, she started using poetry and metaphors during meetings as a way to get people to think outside the box. One day, she showed a video of a trapeze artist, flying through the air and feeling out of control, but knowing that there were safety nets below. The team used that metaphor to have conversations about how they were feeling, and they started to build trust over time.
Finally, it was time for the new building to open. When the week came, the IT systems were down and the sharps containers for needles hadn’t arrived. The leader worked late to make sure the building was safe for patients the next day. Later, she couldn’t sleep, so she started journaling. She asked herself: What is my role as leader in this time of excitement, chaos and disappointment?
She looked inward and realized that if she didn’t feel like going to work in the morning, her employees definitely wouldn’t.
So she wrote an email in the middle of the night to her team. She told everyone how grateful she was that they’d worked hard and come together, and referred back to that trapeze metaphor.
“She stepped back, breathed and thought about what she could contribute,” Francis says. “Writing that email to say thank you and encourage her team made everyone feel affirmed.”
Have Conversations as a Team
After you’ve looked inward and thought about your contributions as a leader, Francis suggests taking the conversation to your team. Ask each other:
- Why are we here together?
- What do we want to do?
- Why is it important? What are our reasons for working here, beyond the paycheck?
“Maybe there’s a story from their childhood that inspired them to go into the work they’re in,” she says. “When we know those stories underneath and take the time to find out that level of humanity, we extend grace to each other more readily.”
Francis told me a story about a group of teachers who started off a workshop by talking about why they became teachers. That conversation allowed them to connect, and they then had an honest discussion about what they wanted to start doing and stop doing as a team. They all agreed that they wanted to start trusting each other and stop backbiting.
“Having conversations about what could be different gets everyone on board,” she says. “It’s not a single manager trying to figure it out, but everyone seeing their role in how things are or aren’t working.”
She says that this kind of open, courageous conversation is especially important for remote teams. She suggests using video calls so that the team can see each other, and she’s found that taking just a few minutes at the beginning of a meeting to ask how everyone’s doing leads to more grounded, less scattered meetings. “Maybe you find out someone took their son back to college this weekend and they’re feeling a little down, or they have a cold, or it’s a beautiful day and the flowers are starting to bloom in their backyard. It’s amazing the difference you find when you take the time to connect heart-to-heart. When we can tap into our core selves and recognize each others’ true selves, trust starts to flow.”
“If we can get more people encouraging each other to find our true self, we’ll have better workplaces,” she says.