Courage & Leadership – Dr Victor SL Tan


A great waste of human resources is people who have the knowledge and skill to lead well but do not, due to their lack of courage. How then do we develop courageous leaders?

1/ Overcome Fear
The first step towards developing courage is overcoming fear. The truth is that many people have many fears that prevent them from achieving great things. Many of these fears are more psychological than real. As they say F.E.A.R. stands for False Evidence Appearing Real. For example, in our public speaking course, we observed that many participants have an obsessive fear of speaking in front of a crowd. They fear what others would think of them. They fear saying stupid things. They fear that their mind will freeze and they would have nothing to say. And most of all they fear making a fool of themselves in front of others. We flush out all their fears first before we actually teach them the techniques of effective speaking. And of course, we provide them with a safe and friendly audience to practice their speeches.

2/ Encourage Risk Taking
Of course, it is not possible to will oneself to become courageous overnight. While self-talk and self-affirmation are very useful techniques to set the mind to be mentally positive, actions followed by positive results are the key to creating that sense of self-confidence and courage.

A good way to develop courageous leaders is to encourage them to take risks and provide them with a supportive environment to do so. While success is the target, failure should be allowed and taken as a learning experience.

3/ Build Courage Through Practice
Developing courage comes from doing and practicing those things we fear until we overcome them. For example, a project leader I know is very competent technically, however he messed up in meetings as he lacked the confidence to lead others. During the duration of the project, I gradually exposed him to more and more meetings with close supervision and guided help. Eventually, he became not only very good at leading project meetings, but he mastered the art of handling people and issues very well. With each successful meeting his self-confidence soared and it reinforced itself and spurred him to do better each time around. With our hands-on guided approach, I taught him the art of facilitation and interacting with his team until he achieved mastery in this area.

4/ Inculcate Self-Belief
Courage comes from self-belief. I once listened to Leslie Brown, the famous motivational speaker told this story about how when he was a young boy he was mistakenly labeled educably mentally retarded. His self-esteem was severely low during his childhood days till one day a school teacher noticed his “talent” and told him that he was a smart kid and that he could do things like normal kids do. And from that day on, he developed a new level of courage. He finally believed in himself. Les grew up not only to become one of the most powerful motivational speakers of all time, but he also became an author of many books and a host of his own TV show. He won over 80 awards for his outstanding work in helping people to realise their potential for achievement.

5/ Recognise and Reinforce Achievements
To understand how courage is developed, observe how a toddler learns to walk. The eager parents provide the most encouraging comments and gestures to inspire the toddler to first stand. The parents patiently coach the young toddler to stand and continue on despite many falls. This process takes time and patience. When the toddler succeeds, there is great applause not only from the parents but often the grandparents at the other end. Each time the toddler succeeds in standing up, this is reinforced with applause. And when the toddler takes the first step, there is even louder claps and cheering. They do not reprimand the toddler for falling down no matter how many times, but they never fail to applaud to reinforce the behavior each time the toddler does the right thing, either standing up or walking a step forward. Such is the power of recognition and reinforcement that instills the courage and self-belief in toddlers to empower them to learn to walk. Likewise, we need to recognise and reinforce their achievements to develop courageous leaders.

This article was published in the Jan-Mar 2016 issue of Inspire Magazine. Download it here!

Dr. Victor S.L. Tan

Dr Victor SL Tan is the CEO of KL Strategic Change Consulting Group. He undertakes change management consulting and training. He is also the author of 10 management books. Find out more at