The Courage to Expand


Essaayist Anais Nin famously once said “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”

Recently I was in Canberra working with a group of women leaders from the Department of Defence to support their Pathway to Change strategy. It was an ambitious agenda for two days, and I was so struck by the work this group achieved that I wanted to capture the essence of what had made it possible.

In the end it boiled down to one thing – courage. More specifically;

  • the group’s courage to question themselves about their leadership challenges. It’s hard to step outside yourself, look objectively and be honest about what’s holding you back
  • their courage to share that publicly with a group of relative strangers who might judge
  • their courage to experiment with new ways of doing things, and their determination to put in the hard work to challenge their own status quo. It’s the only way to bridge the ‘knowing-doing gap’ and become more effective.

The word courage is derived from the Latin Cor which means ‘heart’, and the Oxford Dictionary defines it as the ability to “do something that frightens one.” It took a lot of heart for this group to look in the mirror and grow from what they saw there.

The result was powerful, mutual support developed within only two days. By sharing their experiences, challenges, weaknesses and fears, the group came to a deep understanding of their different perspectives, gave each other practical advice and offered introductions to colleagues who could help.

In essence, the wider system of the department was being successfully engaged to support the growth and career progression of individuals.

This ‘secret sauce’ is not something I can give a leader. I can create the right conditions for it, I can help them find it, I can role-model it, but ultimately they need to find it within themselves. When they do, it unlocks their potential and has a powerful ripple effect that makes it possible for others to do the same.

This week I was speaking at the graduation of our Advanced Leadership Program in Brisbane, and I observed a similar courage. The group themselves described a marked difference from when they started out – less guarded and more confident, open and honest. This had grown over their 12 months together because they had developed the courage to step up.

Lisa Geerlings is a Senior Facilitator & Executive Coach for Women and Leadership Australia.

Author: Lisa Geerlings

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