UVA Darden Ideas to Action

The Enactment of Courage

July 08, 2021

Strategic thinking, sound decision-making, critical thinking, persuasion, empathy. There are a host of qualities that effective leaders should model in the workplace if they want to influence others and deliver truly positive outcomes. But chief among these is one that might not be on your radar: The willingness and ability to act courageously — with competence — says Darden Professor Jim Detert. 

His new book, Choosing Courage, sets out a comprehensive roadmap and practical tools that will help you build your own “courage muscle” and determine how and when to best put it to use. 

Here, Detert examines the dynamics involved in the actual moment of courage — the messages you convey to others in that moment, as well as the emotions you and they experience that can affect the outcome. No matter how well you build your own reputation, set the stage for being courageous, or carefully determine which battles matter and get your timing right, when push comes to shove, you also need to be adept at managing the moment itself and its aftermath. 


When you are in a situation that requires you to be courageous — voicing dissent, making a well-grounded complaint and case for improvement, advocating for something potentially unpopular and so on — it’s important to think about the context of how and to whom you articulate your position. 

Build your case by making the best use of compelling data and solutions — data that you know will carry weight with the person or people you are addressing, and solutions that will help them see the way forward in the given situation. And think long and hard about how you frame your message before you act. 

Take Karla. She worked at a construction company at which employees were routinely working long hours in the heat without breaks. While this practice was both unethical and inconsistent with the company’s official stance on worker safety, Karla did not make those points the overt focus of her discussion with senior management. Instead, she broached the subject by telling them that employees were slowing down to manage the heat and were making more mistakes. The company would see better business outcomes, she argued, by instituting more breaks on the hottest days. By framing her message instrumentally instead of culturally — the more motivating frame for her supervisors — Karla made it easier for them to agree to her proposal.

Karla took a key step in effecting change: She reflected first on how the targets of her comments might react — what they, not she herself, tend to find most compelling. Remember that people are more likely to get on board if they see your message as inclusive of their perspectives, respectful of their efforts and geared to helping them accomplish their goals.  And thinking about how key people in your business typically respond to suggestions or criticisms will also give you some sense of what drives them most — whether it’s a potential consequence or opportunity, or a cultural or financial win — and help you frame your message strategically. 


Managing a difficult conversation may also mean explicitly acknowledging the perspectives of others, as well as sticking to the specifics of a situation — without speculating on motives or making implications about character flaws. It also helps to have the conversation in person, when possible, so that your meaning and intent are easier to understand from additional signals like your facial expressions, body language, and voice tone and volume. Difficult conversations can be fraught with emotions, both of those you are addressing and your own. While emotions are key to human connection and influence, and therefore shouldn’t be suppressed or ignored, they do need to be managed. 

Detert cautions that failing to separate the “automatic” feelings that drive us to take a stand — anger, frustration or fear — can lead us to say things and take actions (just as they can lead us to inaction) that we later regret. While it stands to reason they may be the motivation for taking action, they should not in fact drive how we behave. 

“It’s hard to overstate how impressive it can be and how much more likely we are to drive positive outcomes when we take a principled stance without losing our cool,” says Detert. “When you blow up or yell at a colleague or assert authority in anger, you’re not only unlikely to get what you want from a difficult conversation, you are in danger of getting a bad reputation and losing your influence as you lose mutual trust and respect.”

Fear and anger undermine success if not controlled. “Being competently courageous is about avoiding cognitive distortions — for example, catastrophic or black-and-white thinking — so that we can harness our emotions instead of feeling overwhelmed by them,” says Detert.

But if competent courage is about controlling the message and the emotions of the moment, it is also about action once that moment is past.


Following up matters is also critical when it comes to driving meaningful outcomes. 

Detert cites the example of Chuck, whose line manager was routinely abusive to members of the team. Because this man “kissed up and kicked down,” his insubordinates deemed it too dangerous to speak up about his poor behavior. At the risk of losing his job, Chuck nonetheless reported the manager to HR and to his skip-level boss. As a result, the manager’s behavior improved — for a time. Within weeks, the manager had returned to his abusive ways, and worse still, the inconsequential response to Chuck’s actions only cemented people’s feeling that it was unsafe and not worthwhile to do anything. But Chuck didn’t let it go. Seeing a co-worker develop an ulcer from stress, this time he took it to the top. He reported the manager’s behavior to the VP of HR. The manager was fired and the health and morale of Chuck’s team immediately recovered. 

“Having persistence increases the admiration and appreciation you get from colleagues,” says Detert. “Trying once is often appreciated for sure. But if you keep trying and learning in the face of setbacks or rejections, you will truly earn the respect of those around you.” Adopting a learning orientation can help you recast disappointments as having provided data to be used for more successful next steps rather than reasons to give up. 

Detert adds, “Be sure to always recognize the efforts of others who have also shown courage and supported you. And remember: It’s a journey.”


However adept you are at building a reputation that supports your risk-taking, managing the high-stress moments themselves, and following up with persistence and a learning mindset, the reality is that you can never eliminate all the risk that is part of being courageous. Leaders still have to keep personal imperatives at the fore. 

“No amount of skill eliminates all risk,” says Detert. “So if you want to increase the chances you push past that risk and act anyway, you need to keep front and center what you consider to be your responsibility to do, either merely so you can look yourself in the mirror without shame, or because you want to avoid long-term regrets while building a legacy that you and others will feel good about.”

For more on courage in the workplace: The first of this three-part series, “The Importance of Courage,” looked at why courage matters and the risks associated with being brave (or not). The second, “The Practice of Courage,” explored how to make courage a habit, how to build the kind of reputational capital that will stand you in better stead when you take courageous decisions, and figuring out which battles are worth fighting.

The preceding is drawn from Choosing Courage: The Everyday Guide to Being Brave at Work (Harvard Business Review Press) by Jim Detert. 

Written By

Jim Detert

Jim Detert is the John L. Colley Professor of Business Administration in the Leadership and Organizational Behavior area at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business Administration and a Professor of Public Policy at the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. Prior to joining UVA, he taught at Cornell University's Johnson School of Management and was the faculty director for the School's leadership initiative.