Courageous Leaders, Courageous Workplaces #WorkHuman 2018


What does that word mean to you?

Does it evoke images of great, daring deeds?  Of facing a perilous situation head on with no regard for one’s own safety and well-being, like a fire fighter barreling head on into a blazing inferno?

But does it ever evoke thoughts of the workplace, about being a courageous leader there, in the day to day minutia of the typical work day?  If you were at WorkHuman 2018 in Austin, TX, even if it didn’t before, it probably does now.

In my opinion, courage was the overarching theme that showed up time and time again at this year’s iteration of Globoforce’s WorkHuman conference; countless stories and examples of why being courageous as leaders and as companies is so important.  And guess what?  What courage looks like isn’t always as grandiose as facing a fiery inferno.  Most of the time it shows up in simpler, much more subtle ways.


Vulnerability Does Not Equal Weakness

Great leaders are supposed to be cool, calm, and collected at all times, right?  Not so, according to Brene Brown. “Cool” she says, is simply self-protection and comfort, and quite the opposite of courage.  To be courageous, we have to be willing to share who we are with all our heart, and that requires vulnerability.

There’s a common misconception is that vulnerability equates to weakness, but there’s no actual basis to that claim.  Brene Brown talks about vulnerability as the courage to show up and be seen even when we can’t control the outcome.

As leaders, sometimes (maybe even often) we feel like we need to be in total control of everything.  But that’s just not possible, especially in a world and in a business climate where disruption is becoming the norm.  Courageous, vulnerable leaders are willing to admit they are human, that they make mistakes; they are willing to be imperfect and let people see that.  And when they lead with that sense of vulnerability, it opens the door for more innovation, creativity, and change…and those are things that benefit any organization, in any industry.


Playing the Infinite Game

There are finite games – ones with specific rules and a desired outcome, and infinite games – ones that never truly end because the challenges keep changing, says Simon Sinek.  The problem is that most businesses act as if they are in a finite game, when in reality there is no such thing as “winning” business; as soon as you get to one destination or goal, the game changes.  When you play a finite game, you make decisions on the basis of short term outcomes, which often have detrimental effects in the long run, especially if they negatively impact our people.

To lead as if you’re truly playing an infinite game requires courageous leadership – a long term view and the willingness to sacrifice the short term to ensure you don’t run out of the will or resources to stay in the game in the long run; leadership in which near term tangible outcomes are sometimes sacrificed to make remarkable things happen in the long term.  Courageous leadership means people are never sacrificed for the sake of saving the numbers, people are always put first.

To achieve this, we need to prove that results don’t come before people by not promoting toxic leaders who achieve results but destroy the fabrics of our organizations.  We need to trust and believe in our people to do the right thing, including trusting them to know when to break the rules for the right reasons, instead of instilling fear that “if I don’t follow the rules I get in trouble and lose my job.”  And we need to always have the courage to take the first risk, to make the first sacrifice for our people, who will then in turn make their own sacrifices in pursuit of a common vision.


Courage in the Era of #MeToo

One of the highlights of WorkHuman this year was the #MeToo panel, featuring Tarana Burke, Ronan Farrow, Ashley Judd, and moderated by Adam Grant.  During the panel, Ronan Farrow challenged the HR pros in the room to never “forget how important your role is, how powerful you can be in the fight for justice.”

Although we may argue that we don’t see situations quite to the magnitude of many of the Hollywood stories that came to light in the wake of Harvey Weinstein, we’d also be naïve to think that #MeToo doesn’t impact every organization in some way.  Sexual harassment happens, and it could be happening in your organization right now.  How we deal with it as leaders is where the need for courage comes into play.  Because to truly address the issues, it can’t just be about “check the box” training, it has to mean promoting a culture where these behaviors are not tolerated.  And as leaders, that may mean having the courage to admit where you’ve failed in the past and the vulnerability to pledge to do better in promoting a culture of zero tolerance.  It may mean having the courageous leadership to cut ties with a toxic leader who achieves results. And as HR pros, it may mean having the courage to take a stand, even when it’s not the most popular one, in the quest to ensure our workplaces are safe for all.  In the words of Ashley Judd, it’s about placing “principles above personalities.”



Courage and courageous leadership….the essence of WorkHuman 2018.  If you missed the event this year, mark your calendars for March 18-21, 2019 in Nashville, TN.  If how this event has evolved over the past three years is any indication, it’s bound to be even bigger, better, and more profound next time around!

About the Author

Jennifer Payne

Jennifer Payne is a 20+ year human resources leader with a focus on researching, developing, and implementing talent management programs. She is a believer in lifelong learning and self-development who strives to stay current in HR trends, technology, best practices, and the future of work by sharing knowledge with and learning from HR colleagues and thought leaders across the country and throughout the world through writing, speaking, and involvement in various industry conferences and events.  She is one of the co-founders of Women of HR, and is currently the Editor of the site. You can connect with her on Twitter...

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