There are few things that peel me away from watching my Nittany Lions play a football game. One of those occasions happened recently when my daughter’s alma mater put a female kicker on the football field in a game against Missouri. Sarah Fuller became the first woman to play for a Power Five college football team when she delivered the second-half kickoff. Fuller was named SEC Special Teams Player of the Week.
I can only imagine what it must have been like for Fuller to take the field that day. The only other person who might have shared her amped emotions at that moment was her coach, Todd Fitch. Being the first at anything takes guts.
On or off the field, brave leaders reconcile what their heads perceive as fear but their hearts know is right. A Buddhist monk once said this about courage: “The longest journey you will ever take is the 18 inches from your head to your heart.”
Courageous leaders understand that leading a team or company through unprecedented circumstances requires a meeting of the heart and mind. Harvard Business School’s Bill George adds that “Courageous leaders take risks that go against the grain of their organizations. … Their boldness inspires their teams, energizes customers, and positions their companies as leaders in societal change.”
In a Forbes article, George celebrates leaders like former Ford CEO Alan Mulally and current PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi. Undeterred by Ford family protests, Mulally borrowed $23 billion to turn around the company, regain its market share, and return it to profitability. Nooyi foresaw the coming shift of millennial consumer preferences that were at odds with the corporate strategy. She restructured her entire leadership team despite fierce resistance to meet a new direction and deliver results.
Let’s be clear. Courage is bolstered by experience and access to accurate information. Without those two ingredients, bold choices are hard to make. We’ve talked before about the debate between listening to your gut and following the data. I’m betting that Mulally and Nooyi had the benefit of both great intel and gut feelings that were channeling prior experience.
The “but” here is: What if you’re not a courageous leader brimming with experience and insightful information? What if you’re the haven’t-tested-my courage-yet kind of leader? Besides addressing your fears, which I explore in my book Transfluence, I’ve discovered that some leaders value reframing a situation to summon their courage.
Let’s think of this in football terms, since we started with Sarah Fuller. Reframing a situation is like asking a fan who’s sitting on the fifty-yard line to describe the game. Now ask the nosebleed-section fans to describe the game. These two groups might have very different interpretations of the plays.
One fan might have more nuance due to proximity, while another may have the big picture because they watch the entire field at a distance. It’s no different for a leader who’s facing a big decision. They need context from different positions in the company to make decisions that account for every angle.
As a leader, you can easily get disconnected from what’s going on at every level when you depend too heavily on your direct reports. Courageous leaders walk the floor to gather frontline insights, they practice good listening skills in meetings that represent a variety of opinions, and they look for ways to interact with employees who they might not otherwise see regularly.
It’s safe to say that reframing factored into Coach Fitch’s decision about Sarah Fuller. He evaluated her from the perspective of a soccer coach. He saw that she helped her team win the soccer conference championship that year as a goalie. Fitch also considered Fuller’s successful career as a leader and an athlete. With that information, he made an informed decision about inviting her to try out as a kicker. The rest, they say, is history.