Critical Leadership Skills Series: Courage

February, 2024

Join Unstoppable co-founders Vikram Maraj and Kevin Gangel to explore this set of four critical leadership skills that unlock unlimited potential in people and organizations. 

In an ever shifting business landscape of perpetual crisis, a state change is needed now more than ever — yet organizations today reveal a stunning lack of leadership, with just 11% of surveyed organizations reporting “robust leadership.” This vacuum offers a massive opportunity to those willing to re-examine their ingrained thought and behavior patterns. 

For innovative solutions to build the world of the future, leaders must do the work — first for themselves and then for their organizations — to develop new mindsets. Most leadership training fails because it considers only the day-to-day challenges organizations and individuals face without ever addressing the underlying mechanisms that impede true change. 

Through decades of work with organizations of every type and size, Unstoppable has identified four key leadership skills that foster cultures of unlimited potential: authenticity, responsibility, courage, and adaptability.

In a four-part series, Unstoppable co-founders Vikram Maraj and Kevin Gangel deep-dive into each of these skills. In this article, they focus on developing habits and cultures of courage. Read on to explore Kevin and Vikram’s insights on courage, and how it can enable us to abandon outdated modes of thinking, try new things, and better lead through complexity. 

What takes courage in today’s world is simply this: Are you willing to take the risk of sharing your humanity with others? That’s courage. 

 

– Kevin Gangel, Co-founder, Unstoppable Conversations

Unstoppable Conversations: Describe the conventional notion of courage — how is Unstoppable’s notion different? 

Kevin Gangel: Eat the frog. Do something that terrifies you. Throw yourself on a grenade. Hold off an army at the pass. Learn how to take a punch. The conventional notion of courage centers around doing something physically or socially dangerous that puts you in harm’s way. That may be valid if you’re a first responder, but for your average company leader, trying to bring firefighter standards to the boardroom or sales meeting isn’t a useful model.

Vikram Maraj: Old-school courage rarely includes the power to be real with people. Unstoppable’s courage is the unprecedented capacity to willingly and publicly reveal one’s weaknesses. It’s living the paradox of how big you have to be to admit you are small.

KG: Our version isn’t about putting your body at risk — it’s about putting your identity at risk. Are you willing to risk your need to look good? Are you willing to risk making mistakes and failing? What takes courage in today’s world is simply this: Are you willing to take the risk of sharing your humanity with others? That’s courage.  

In complexity, our certainty is gone. Without the courage to let go of what made you successful, you have no chance of discovering what could reinvent the organization for the future.

 

– Vikram Maraj, Co-Founder, Unstoppable Conversations

UC: Why is courage an essential skill for organizations looking to effectively navigate complexity? 

VM: Complexity requires a learning organization and leaders who can adapt and not cling to past ways of thinking. In complexity, our certainty is gone. Without the courage to let go of what made you successful, you have no chance of discovering what could reinvent the organization for the future. Courage is admitting that what got us here won’t get us there, and deliberately abandoning it. 

KG: Complexity, crisis, conflict, and uncertainty are constants in today’s business world, and the pace at which we are confronted with them has us reliably operating in a state of stress and pressure. It’s especially when the heat is on that we need courage. It takes courage to change, courage to try again, courage to say the thing no one is saying. Complex situations inherently mean dealing with the unknown — you’ve never faced this situation before, so there are no rules to handle it. Your tried-and-true patterns, behaviors, and tactics probably aren’t going to work. You must try something new; it almost certainly will fail at first, and you will most likely look bad. EXCEPT, if you are open and transparent about the fear, the uncertainty, and the failure, you somehow end up looking really good. Why? Because you were the one willing to act when everyone else was frozen. You were the one willing to speak when everyone else was silent. Be the one willing to fail when everyone else is failing to act. 

UC: What are the stumbling blocks that can limit this kind of courage and how do you overcome them? 

KG: Courage is limited when our focus is primarily on our own thoughts, interpretations, and judgments. How we feel and what we think are actually irrelevant to the world moving forward around us. Once we can acknowledge our thoughts and feelings in the moment and then actively set them aside without invalidating them, we can re-scan our situation, our team, and the environment and get deeply related to the facts of the matter at hand. When we do that, taking decisive and disruptive action becomes natural.

VM: The number one stumbling block to courage is the need to look good even though pretending to have it handled is killing you. It’s why people don’t speak up at meetings when they know the boss is wrong. It’s why most people don’t tell someone they forgot their name. An essential part of being human is the need to fit in, belong, look good, and appear unphased by life. Most people waste their lives pretending to be something they are not because they lack the courage to be themselves.

The number one stumbling block to courage is the need to look good even though pretending to have it handled is killing you.

 

– Vikram Maraj, Co-founder, Unstoppable Conversations

UC: It’s been said that the best thing an enterprise can do is cultivate conditions for growth because the most successful business outcomes are unpredictable — how does courage help create an environment for growth?

VM: With Unstoppable’s courage comes truth. When enough people in an organization tell the truth, the gears are no longer gummed up with rumors, stories, and innuendo. People in courageous organizations have real conversations that break through the most challenging situations. Their radical transparency allows for unprecedented speed in solving problems and their growth is a natural byproduct of being first to market.

KG: Courage has you stick your nose in there and interact with life in the moment. Get good at the kind of courage that has you say things you’ve never said, listen to things you’ve historically resisted, and do things you’ve never tried. Get good at the kind of courage that has you share your view simply, and only as your view and not the truth. Explore the courage of being open to shifting your position, saying you were wrong, and admitting when you were faking it. That kind of courage will open up new conversations all around you and open up new opportunities for action for you and everyone on your team.

UC: Share an example of how you’ve seen courage affect a person or company. 

KG: Norman Yakeleya is one of the most courageous people I know. During the Being A Leader program, Norman discovered the courage to say something he’d always wanted to say: “My purpose in life is that all Indigenous youth are free from the trauma of the past.” Norman was no longer young at this point, but as a residential school survivor, he was one of those youth. After that, he was elected National Chief of the Dene Nation and continued to say big, bold things no one else was saying. He led his team, a political body with no revenue source and no embedded legal authority, to announce their purpose: “Dene Unity is shared with the world.” Dene Unity is not how it had been going for the previous 50 years; yet within 6 months, 23 Chiefs and 5 Grand Chiefs said, “We speak with one voice.” Norman then began an exploration of how he could translate between the Dene language and the Dene Laws (30,000 year-old precepts guiding how to live life) and white language and white thinking. He was able to generate new conversations with the Government of Canada and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops — conversations that led to Pope Francis coming to Canada in 2022 to apologize for the church’s role in residential schools. Going from the inability to speak his own truth to unifying 23 nations to a historic papal apology is the definition of courage — the courage to speak in the moment again and again and to walk the path of your courageously stated life’s purpose.

Get good at the kind of courage that has you say things you’ve never said, listen to things you’ve historically resisted, and do things you’ve never tried.

 

– Kevin Gangel, Co-Founder, Unstoppable Conversations

VM: I coached a national fitness company that had an employee who made racist comments during a demonstration of their fitness equipment in a mall during Christmas. The company issued a news release the next day taking full responsibility for employing someone who failed to live up to the company’s values of integrity and family. The release went on to say they were not going to compromise their last remaining value of “do the right thing” and pretend they were simply victims of someone’s individual views. The long-term employee was fired and the company penned an apology to all First Nations. They were featured in an article remarking on the courage it took to own their mistake. Because they took full responsibility, the public overwhelmingly forgave the company. Oh, and their sales doubled that Christmas. 

Vik Maraj is a co-founder of Unstoppable and serves as Head of Design and Delivery.

Kevin Gangel is a co-founder of Unstoppable and serves as CEO.

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