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Courage Goes to Work

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Bill Treasurer knows a thing or two about courage. In his early career as a member of the U.S. High Diving team, he performed over 1500 dives from heights scaling to over 100 feet (the equivalent of a ten-story building). Today he is a business consultant who works with organizations to develop courage in their employees -- from front-line folks to supervisors and team leaders to managers and senior executives. His company, Giant Leap Consulting, counts Bank of America, NASA, Saks Fifth Avenue, Accenture, Spanx, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, UBS Bank, and the National Science Foundation among its clients.

Recently I was helping a friend do some research on "everyday courage" when I came across Treasurer's latest book, Courage Goes to Work. I was intrigued by the notion of courage in the workplace, so I asked him if he would sit down and have a conversation with me about courage at work.

BJG: Your books and your consulting business focus on helping people build courage. Tell me what you mean by "courage" in the context of modern workplace.

BT: Today's workplace is rife with fear -- leaders who use fear as a motivator, fear and job insecurity, worry about what coworkers think of you, fear of workplace changes -- these factors, and many more, fuel people's fear. What's the alternative to fear? Courage. It takes courage to make budget requests; courage to admit making a mistake; courage to take on a new role requiring new skills; courage to launch a new product.

The normal human response to fear is to hunker down and play it safe. But if everyone is playing it safe, the business is in real danger of missing significant opportunities. When you're anxious, worries, or scared and feel the urge to hunker down and play it safe, that's the time you need to do just opposite. Playing it safe never leads to greatness. That's where courage comes in.

Because there is so much fear in today's workplace -- probably more than at any time since the Great Depression -- I am committed to helping people find the courage they have inside but often can't get in touch with. Many folks remind me of the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz -- they think they don't have any courage, but they really do. They just need someone to remind and reassure them that they have the right stuff, they have what it takes.

For instance, Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, once told me that whenever one of her people makes a mistake -- especially when the mistake leads to learning and new insights -- she is never disappointed. In fact, she goes up to the mistake-maker and gives them a big high-five for their willingness to take risks and be courageous. Given how Sara values courage, it's not surprising that she graces the cover of Forbes magazine as the youngest self-made woman billionaire! She's the kind of client I love working with -- someone who's already running a great organization and wants to be even better.

BJG: Are there gender differences when it comes to courage? Does courage show up in different kinds of behavior for men and for women?

BT: On the macro level, no, there's no difference between courage for men and women. Courage means to take action despite being intensely afraid or uncomfortable -- and that's true for both genders.

But we do find differences in the types of risks each gender is more willing to take. For instance, women tend to be more willing to take emotional risks than men. It takes courage to be emotionally vulnerable, and this seems to come easier to women than men. And we find that men tend to be more willing to take physical and financial risks than women. So both genders are capable of great courage, but it is very likely that they will not be equally courageous in all parts of their lives.

It's important to not over-generalize. Whether you're a women or a man, when you face a challenging situation, the physiological responses are the same: your heart races, your mouth gets dry, your eyes dilate, and your palms sweat.

We also have to remember that courage is personal. What triggers fear in me won't necessarily make you fearful. Rather than attempting to define masculine or feminine courage, I encourage women to push into new territory and define what courage looks like for them.

BJG: What do you think of this notion of a "war on women" we keep hearing about in the media? Do you think there's a "war on women" in the workplace as well as in the political arena?

BT: Well, if there is a war on women, the insurgency is fighting back. It only took about two days for women to organize and mount a campaign to get the Susan G. Komen foundation to rescind their decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood. A few weeks later, women mobilized again and pressed advertising sponsors to drop Rush Limbaugh when he called Sandra Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute". Looks to me like women are pretty darn courageous!

An interesting sidebar: If there is a war on women, some women can't decide which side of the war they're on. Zogby International did a survey of workplace bullying a few years back. It showed that 40 percent of workplace bullies are actually women, and 70 percent of the time these women are bullying other women!

I once asked a female senior executive how she thought the workplace would be different when women have completely broken the proverbial glass ceiling. She commented that women would lead with a more cooperative style than men. While I believe that her answer was right, what struck me was how her own behavior was so at odds with her answer. She was pretty close to the other side of the ceiling herself, yet she was as uncooperative as could be. I suspect there are other women like her. It's as if they're waiting till they're on the other side of the ceiling before they adopt a more progressive and evolved leadership approach. Courage, I think, would be to adopt these behaviors without waiting until you're "arrived" to do so.

BJG: Finally, what advice do you offer women about cultivating more courage in their own lives -- both personally and professionally?

BT: First, set some "gulp goals" -- goals that are exciting, and a little scary too. Courage can be fuel that helps move you toward those goals.

Second, identify where you are playing it too safe. Understanding that will indicate the next courageous move you want to consider making.

Third, have sweaty palms. Don't just lean into discomfort -- move into it far enough that your body starts to feel the physiological responses of courage ... like sweaty palms.

Finally, I'd suggest two words that will serve you well as you move forward in your life and career: Be courageous. You can use them whenever you're feeling complacent; nudge yourself into action when you want to stand up to an office bully; and reassure yourself whenever you find yourself gripped by debilitating fear. Make it your new mantra - Be courageous!

Bill Treasurer is the author of "Courage Goes to Work" as well as "Right Risk: Ten Powerful Principles for Taking Giant Leaps with Your Life." For more information about Treasurer and Giant Leap Consulting, go to www.couragebuilding.com