Brave Leadership: 5 Principles That Enable Teams to Thrive

Leaders, take note: real leadership is for the brave of heart. In today's world, where the rate of change is continuously accelerating, team effectiveness depends highly on leaders's ability – and willingness – to be brave.

If organizations are to thrive, they need more leaders who are committed to cultivating a culture of bravery. If business leaders want to succeed, they need to be willing to make brave choices for their employees and communities. And if leaders want to strengthen their organizations and make their teams more effective, they need to develop brave relationships with people who disagree with them.

The bravery to lead, not follow: one CEO's example

One leader who is willing to be bold and question the conventional business wisdom around what makes a 'strong' leader is Ben & Jerry's CEO Matthew McCarthy.

Matthew spoke with Symbia MD Jodie Rogers on The Hidden Edge of Team Performance podcast episode 4 about questioning the status quo and standing up for first principles. Through his leadership track record and his dedication to building sustainable brands, he has shown his commitment to challenging authority (even his own), protecting his company's people, and walking the talk of the organization even at his personal expense.

He would agree: leadership and bravery, like mental fitness and employee wellbeing and productivity 'are connected like a chain of the strongest steel.'

Bravery of Being Vulnerable Matthew McCarthy

What bravery in leadership really looks like

Brave leaders must act ethically, morally and legally. To blindly follow another leader, based solely on that person's rank in the command structure, is not leadership. Having a title doesn't give someone the right to say "yes" to every request or decision. Leaders are brave enough to stand up for their beliefs and say "no" to things that could potentially carry too much risk or be unethical. They also recognize when it is appropriate to question decisions that could harm their people's or organization's health.

Bravery isn't just about taking stands. It's also about our behaviour towards others. A little compassion goes a long way in making difficult situations easier to navigate for the team. A small gesture of kindness and leading by example equips others with tools that help them solve their own issues, in life and work.

Brave leadership in practice: 5 principles

Many leaders struggle to accept that some things are outside their control. That should come as no surprise. They've spent years learning that leaders are supposed to 'be strong'. We can, and should, question whether those beliefs are valid. However, this doesn't change the fact that leaders, by definition, have to make difficult decisions. These decisions set the direction for their companies as well as the teams they lead.

And yet, leadership isn't just about what we do. It's also about what we don't do. When leaders step back and admit that an outcome is not theirs to determine, they are being honest – and that makes them better leaders. The decision to be honest is a brave one.

In that spirit, we're sharing 5 principles that show brave leadership 'in the wild'. We hope this helps you be more courageous in your leadership.

Brave leaders talk to their teams even when it's uncomfortable

We get it: asking the hard questions is, well, hard. It's more comfortable to steer clear of giving negative feedback and talking about uncomfortable topics with your team. Nevertheless, brave leaders don't let their very human desire to be liked get in the way of leading.

This is what leadership is about: willingness to go there. To talk about a direct report's sub-par performance, push back when a team member gets prickly, or be the bearer of bad news. Unpleasant as it is, brave leaders enter these conversations head-on. They recognize that this is part of their job description.

To that end, what conversation can you have today that you've been avoiding dealing with, even though your position as a leader demands it?

Brave leaders take responsibility for their actions (and the consequences)

Many leaders love to take centre stage. But while success brings prestige, it also results in hardship. Being in the spotlight means that when leaders make mistakes, their failures are public affairs. Brave leaders take risks, and when those risks don't have the desired results, they hold themselves accountable.

U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt believed in taking himself to task and acknowledging his own shortcomings and missteps as a leader. He remarked on the subject of his failings: “If you could kick the person in the pants most responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month.”

Roosevelt knew that some of the greatest obstacles to one's own effectiveness are self-created – and also that not acknowledging these was detrimental to the effectiveness of those in his charge.

By that same token, brave leaders are willing to accept responsibility for their actions, including their failures. Are you avoiding accountability for your actions, or pointing fingers at others when you fall short?

Brave leaders elevate others

Insecure leaders fear losing their status. Brave leaders, on the other hand, understand that their role is to embody the organization's principles and enable others to share responsibility in its prosperity. They are there not to wield power, but to empower others. To be empathetic and spend more time listening than talking. To learn from their juniors and pass the reins onto them rather than leaning on their own authority. To establish guidelines and clarify values, but trust their team to execute and expand on those in their work.

Back to Matthew McCarthy: he summed this principle up beautifully on The Hidden Edge of Team Performance podcast in explaining why senior executives at companies need to step aside and let younger team members lead: "The momentum of our markets can carry a zombie for a long time."

Do you want zombies to lead your company? If not, be brave and be the kind of leader who doesn't cling – who listens and even defers to junior team members.

Brave leaders speak out against injustice

Leaders must be willing to defend important principles when they are being ignored by the members of your organization or ground up in the organizational gears. Those who lack courage stay silent in the face of injustice or wrongdoing – because they would rather fit in with their coworkers and not jeopardize their jobs and privileges.

Brave leaders, however, will stand up for what they believe is right, even if it means putting their reputation or livelihood on the line. What principles are you willing to stand up for and do the right thing, even if you know that it might cost you?

Brave leaders walk the talk

Cowards talk big, but don't date take action. In contrast, brave leaders fund the projects they believe in – the ones they feel will drive the organization and the people who comprise it forward. Don't fall into this trap. Do the work and put your money where your mouth is. Do whatever needs to be done to accomplish the goal, forget about shameless self-promotion, and check your ego at the door. You have power. So use it. Responsibly and for the benefit of your people and vision.

Ask yourself: what key initiative can I make happen by putting my weight behind it? How can I align my team to achieve this goal more openly, vocally, effectively? What courageous reallocating of resources can I influence to secure this positive outcome – not for myself, but for the whole organization?

Lead bravely. Your team will follow.

Read about Matthew McCarthy's mission to deliver economic, product and social mission impact in all the communities where Ben & Jerry's operates:

Want to learn more about how Symbia’s approach to uncovering individual and team purpose? Email us at

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