Sunday / May 19

Leading from a Courageous Mindset

Leading from a Courageous Mindset

In your work as a school leader, you have probably found yourself in situations that caused some anxiety or fear. You struggled to do the right thing according to your core values but the fallout might bring some negative consequence for you or your school. All school leaders have faced these dilemmas and all have heard the inner voices speaking to us about what decision to make, what direction to take, and what actions are best.

Which voice we listen to is a matter of choice. School leaders must make the conscious choice to listen to the inner of voice of strength, confidence, power, and passion—as opposed to falling victim to the voice of fear, helplessness, and powerlessness. All too often, we make the mistake of thinking we cannot take bold action because we are not smart enough, or respected enough, or powerful enough. These fears are normal, but they prevent us from leading courageously.

In this article, I will share three strategies to override your fear and build a courageous mindset.

Believe in Yourself Without Limits

The first strategy to developing your courage mindset is believing in yourself without limits. Confidence breeds confidence, and improving your leadership is dependent on it. When it comes to how strongly you believe in your ability to complete tasks and reach goals, boundaries should not exist. It really is a matter of positive self-talk and positive self- attribution.

People who see themselves as courageous respond to fear-inducing events more boldly than those who do not see themselves as courageous. You are literally as courageous as you think you are. See yourself as bold and you will behave boldly. This does not mean that you do not have to prepare for events that require your courage, but it does mean that the more you do it, the better you get at it. Courage is created by action. Bold people are just ordinary people who have activated their courage an extraordinary number of times.

Keep Worry at Bay

The second strategy for developing your courage mindset is keeping your worries in perspective. Worrying constantly and staying on high-alert will not help you override fear and it will impede your development as a courageous leader. In fact, high-alert behavior will make you more fearful. Worry can destroy your ability to lead effectively because it drains valuable energy, takes away needed focus, causes fatigue and stress, and steals joy. But, how do you deal effectively with it? Researchers asked a group of people to identify what worried them and tracked their worries over time. The important results follow:

  • 40% of the worries concerned things that never actually happened
  • 30% of the worries concerned things from the past that could neither be changed nor otherwise influenced
  • 12% of the worries were needless worries about health
  • 10% of the worries were petty worries about unimportant things
  • Only 8% of the worries concerned anything substantial
  • Only half of the 8% involved things that could be controlled or changed

(Cottrell & Harvey p. 82) 

This is an important study for school leaders. The next time you find yourself unable to focus or lacking energy and motivation to lead due to worrying, ask yourself if your worries fall into one of the worries listed. Force yourself to keep things in perspective by understanding that 96% of the things you worry about either will not happen, are out of your control, are needless, or are unimportant in the big picture.

Highly effective leaders have worries just like the rest of us, but they deliberately refuse to waste their energy stressing over things of which they have no control. Rather, they direct their energy and attention to factors they can control, and they do so with enthusiasm and determination. Research shows that the best antidote for worry is purposeful action. Engaging in actions that can make a difference for others, and fearlessly focusing on the work that matters most, can help you keep your worries at bay and develop the courage you need to succeed.

Be Optimistic

The final strategy for developing your courage mindset is maintaining an optimistic outlook even when things do not look or feel good. According to Debbie Ford, author of Courage: Overcoming Fear & Igniting Self-Confidence, “When you are not complete with the past, you drag it around with you wherever you go, using it as a reference point for who you are, for what you think, for what you believe, and for the choices you make.” You must let go of the patterns from the past that keep you from conquering new challenges, and taking the path less traveled. Optimistic leaders do not allow the voices that cast doubt and instill fear to render them helpless and powerless. You can be your own worst enemy, as 95% of self-talk is negative. Therefore, positive self-talk is critical to maintaining your optimism and resilience when times are tough. (Roselle, 2006).

Martin Seligman, professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the national bestseller, Learned Optimism, has proven that optimists are more successful than equally talented pessimists in business, education, sports, and politics. In one of his studies with Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, he developed the Seligman Attribution Style Questionnaire to sort the pessimists from the optimists during hiring.  He followed the performance of both groups over several years. The optimists outsold the pessimists by 20% in year one, and by 50% in year two. He concluded that optimism is a critical factor in keeping people engaged in their work, even in the face of poor results or bad news. (Seligman, 2006).

Seligman also tells a story of two sales executives in the shoe business who were sent to Africa to scope out new markets for their products. The first executive wrote back to the company president sharing that the prospects for business were dim because, “No one wears shoes here.” The second executive wrote back with a different view. He shared that the potential for business in the area was tremendous because, “No one wears shoes here!” It is easy to see from this simple story why an optimist will outperform a pessimist in any field of work. It is all in the way you see things which either drives you to seize opportunities or miss them altogether.


Courageousness is not some mystical trait that can only be achieved by a small number of special people. It is a trait that anyone can develop. Fear will be present, but you can override it. Getting comfortable with feeling fear is a critical part of learning how to be courageous. A second critical part is stepping out of your comfort zone again and again until discomfort starts to seem comfortable. Courageous people are simply those who have trained themselves to feel normal during stressful situations.

Review the comparison chart below and determine which mindset best describes your leadership. If you find that the right side more accurately reflects your work as a leader, consider embracing the three keys to a courageous mindset and deliberately begin practicing them.


In summary, developing a strong mindset for courageous leadership involves three factors that have significant influence. Developing self-confidence and believing in yourself without limits, keeping worries in perspective knowing that 96% of your worries are without merit, and thirdly, maintaining an optimistic spirit seeing situations as opportunities to excel and grow are the keystones to a courageous mindset.

Leading from a Courageous Mindset


Cottrell, D. & Harvey, E.  (2004).  Leadership courage:  Leadership strategies for Individuals and organizational success.  Performance Systems Corporation.  Flower Mound, TX.

Ford, D.  (2012).  Courage:  Overcoming fear & igniting self-confidence.  Harpers Collins Publishers.  New York

Fredrickson, B. (2009) Positivity: Top-notch research reveals the 3 to 1 ratio that will change your life. MJF Books, New York.

Pury, C. & Lopez, S. editors (2010).  The psychology of courage:  Modern research on an ancient virtue. American Psychological Association.  Washington, D.C.

Roselle, B.  (2006).  Fearless leadership:  Conquering your fears and the lies that drive them.  Leader Press.  Minneapolis, MN

Seligman, M.  (2006).  Learned optimism:  How to change your mind and your life.  Random House.  New York.

Siebert, A.  (2005) The resiliency advantage: Master change, thrive under pressure, and bounce back from setbacks.   Berrett-Koehler Publishers.  San Francisco, CA.

Written by

Education consultant, author, and nationally recognized educator, Cathy Lassiter is an energetic, passionate speaker who is in great demand. With over thirty years of experience, she supports large and small districts in areas including leadership development, school culture, principal and teacher evaluation, collaboration, instruction, assessment, and closing achievement gaps. Her work has concentrated on serving the needs of all students and imposing rigorous standards and high expectations to help prepare them for college and careers. Cathy is the author of the forthcoming book, Everyday Courage for School Leaders.

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