Nurturing strong and capable leaders is a top priority for organizations today. Research by the Center for Creative Leadership shows that firms committed to cultivating leadership talent experience:

  • Improved financial performance
  • Success in navigating organizational change
  • Higher employee attraction and retention rates
  • A greater ability to drive strategic execution

While there is a range of workplace competencies that characterize effective leadership, such as knowing how to give feedback and communicate organizational change, there are also key emotional traits and behaviors that professionals need to access and nurture in order to bring out the best in themselves and others. Among those traits is courage.

“A courageous leader is an individual who's capable of making themselves better and stronger when the stakes are high and circumstances turn against that person,” says Harvard Business School Professor Nancy Koehn, who teaches a free, online leadership lesson about legendary explorer Ernest Shackleton. “Most of our lives, we’re beset by crises. Courageous leaders are not cowed or intimidated. They realize that, in the midst of turbulence, there lies an extraordinary opportunity to grow and rise.”

If you want to guide your team with conviction and transform business challenges into opportunities for positive change, here are five characteristics of courageous leaders you should develop to unleash your potential and advance your career.

Courageous Leadership Characteristics

1. Authenticity

Authenticity is foundational to courageous leadership. A recent study found that employees’ perception of authentic leadership serves as the strongest predictor of their job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and workplace happiness. Research also shows that organizations, which are comprised of leaders who are true to themselves, demonstrate improvements in both employee trust and performance.

According to Koehn, the first step to becoming an authentic leader is to focus on self-improvement.

“Authentic leaders begin with the will and commitment to work on themselves,” Koehn says. “They’re not trying to be perfect or to somehow spring from the rib of Zeus into an iconic individual, but rather, they say, ‘Day by day and week by week, I’m going to work on myself.’”

One potential avenue for bettering yourself is to participate in leadership training. By furthering your skills and knowledge, you can not only strengthen your leadership capabilities, but also build a network of peers from whom you can learn and grow.

2. Resilience

Leadership can be challenging. When complex business problems arise, you need to be prepared to meet them head-on and be resilient as you work toward a solution.

“Resilience is the capacity to not only endure great challenges, but to get stronger in the midst of them,” Koehn says.

She adds that resilience isn’t something everyone intrinsically possesses; it’s a learned capability that leaders can hone with experience.

“Each time we navigate through a crisis and find a little strength in it, we’re able to pick out an insight we can learn from; at the same time, we resolve not to get bitter, weaker, smaller, or more frightened, but, rather, to get the tiniest bit braver,” she says. “A leader’s ability to do this is profound, not only for him or herself, but for the impact it exerts on others and the larger mission.”

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3. Emotional Intelligence

A keen sense of emotional intelligence is vital to being a leader who can collaborate with others to achieve organizational goals. According to research by TalentSmart, 90 percent of top performers in the workplace have a high degree of emotional intelligence, compared to 20 percent of bottom performers.

Another study shows that emotionally intelligent leaders are more adept at demonstrating a willingness and ability to change, which, in turn, enhances trustworthiness and boosts employee buy-in when it comes to change initiatives.

Koehn says becoming a leader who is attuned to your emotions requires a “willingness to cultivate, enhance, and deepen your self-awareness, and to learn to trust it.”

To heighten your self-awareness, consider taking a leadership self-assessment. By doing so, you can gain greater insight into your workplace behaviors and how others perceive you.

4. Self-Discipline

In addition to building self-awareness and a deeper understanding of your emotions, you need to exercise self-discipline and demonstrate poise—even in the most trying circumstances.

“We live in a world that’s characterized by one nonstop crisis after another, like waves breaking on the shore,” Koehn says.

When facing a crisis, you need to be prepared to lead under pressure and remain composed. Koehn says a key initial step is to take stock of the circumstances surrounding the situation at hand, rather than acting prematurely.

“Realize that in the heat of the moment, nothing an individual leader can do can solve the whole situation,” Koehn says. “You’re better off acting from your strongest, calmest self than you are taking the first reactive, immediate action.”

5. Commitment to Purpose

Purpose is critical to both individual and organizational success. A report by EY shows that 96 percent of leaders believe purpose is important to their job satisfaction. In a separate study by DDI, it was found that purpose builds organizational resilience and improves long-term financial performance.

For you and your firm to reap these benefits, it’s imperative to consider how you can be more purpose-driven and leverage your organization’s objectives to instill your team with a sense of mission.

Seek to empower your employees by tying their work to important strategic initiatives, and delegate tasks that drive key projects forward.

Through such actions, you can inspire faith in your employees and ignite their desire to perform at their best.

“It’s what we’re thirsty for now,” Koehn says. “We’re looking for leaders who can help us make a leap of faith and be integral to creating a better world, and to believe this is worthy of doing and possible.”

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Becoming a Courageous Leader

Growing into a courageous leader can pay dividends for your company and career. By committing to a leadership development plan that builds your authenticity, resilience, emotional intelligence, self-discipline, and commitment to purpose, you can acquire the skills to lead with bravery and conviction in challenging times.

Do you want to improve your leadership capabilities? Download our e-book on how to become a more effective leader or take our free, 35-minute leadership lesson about legendary explorer Ernest Shackleton, and discover how you can develop the skills to lead with courage and conviction.

Matt Gavin

About the Author

Matt Gavin is a member of the marketing team at Harvard Business School Online. Prior to returning to his home state of Massachusetts and joining HBS Online, he lived in North Carolina, where he held roles in news and content marketing. He has a background in video production and previously worked on several documentary films for Boston’s PBS station, WGBH. In his spare time, he enjoys running, exploring New England, and spending time with his family.