Caring Takes Courage

“If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.”

Gordon A. Eadie

This will be the first of a three-part series on answering the question, ‘do I coach this leader or not?’  Here is the reason why I, as a leadership coach, want to answer this question first.

I accepted an assignment, in a large district, coaching ten principals.  Halfway through the school year I quit coaching four of them.  Why? First, there was no follow-through.  Whatever we agreed upon, within two weeks, a follow-up phone call was made.  Nothing was done.  This pattern continued for months.

Even though they listen and seemed open to strategies, there were always reasons there was no progress. In the final analysis, there was a feeling of ‘getting along required going along’ or there was no courage to confront processes that kept the school from making progress for student and staff learning. It seemed unethical to continue to receive money for coaching when it wasn’t making a difference.

To be fair, these four principals were outstanding and made significant progress embedding strong programs to help kids and colleagues learn.  Two made moderate changes that did help the school.

Yes, relationships are important. AND implementation and execution are important.  The courage to identify personal and professional values and being willing to stand up for those values is paramount in making necessary changes.

Leadership is not for the faint of heart.  Speaking truth to power, managing up, articulating strong and authentic values, making timely and tough decisions are at the heart of leadership.  Marshall Goldsmith, voted the top executive coach in the United States and in the international community, wrote “let’s work with people who want to be a leader.”

As an educational leadership coach deciding who to work with is critical. The first attribute to look for is ‘courage.’ The leader has to care enough about the people and the organization to see reality and help.  They must see what is, not what they wish it was. The leader must have the courage to confront problems and honor those who are doing the hard work every day.

Marshall Goldsmith has three criteria for deciding whether or not to work with a leader. I have found this to be a great guide.

  1. Courage – ruthless honesty in confronting reality
  2. Humility – being willing to listen to others and learn from and with them
  3. Discipline – follow-through. As Donald H. McGannon, Past President of the National Urban League, said, “Leadership is Action, Not Position”

Goldsmith (2007) wrote a book titled, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.  How many  think what has always worked in the past will continually work in the future?  Not us.  I think real leadership will require continually acquiring more repertoire to deal with an uncertain world.  How many of you saw COVID coming? History is littered with surprises.  The future will  be no different.  So, strap on your seatbelt, it might be a bumpy ride.

What determines your level of courage?  It is usually grounded in your values.  Stan Slap (2010) has an activity in his book, Bury My Heart in Conference Room B. The activity involves identifying your values. He starts with fifty and you pare them down to about three.  These values will help determine what you will stand for and what you will not tolerate.  Then the second question, “how did you get those values?”  The answers are always about a parent, teacher, coach, clergy, etc.  Someone taught or modeled those values.

The organization you lead must have psychological safety in order for people to do their best work.  See Amy Edmondson (2019), Fearless Organization, for more on that topic. Here are some behaviors to watch for:

  • If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you
  • People on this team sometimes reject others for being different
  • It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help

Positive Behaviors to encourage:

  • It is safe to take a risk on this team
  • No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts
  • Working with members of this team my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized
  • Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues

Another key element of courage is choosing the ‘Right Fight.’ One thing that has been learned in over forty years in education is that you can’t fight every battle.

  • Check your values
  • Determine whether or not you have any control over the situation
  • If you have some control Stand Up and Take Action
  • Otherwise, Let It Go

Choosing the “Right Fight” is critical in developing people and systems. There are courageous leaders out there. For example, in Kendi’s new book, How to be an Antiracist, he posits it is no longer enough to declare you are not racist.  BTW we all have biases so get over it.  Kendi’s point is that we must take actions that will confront and take action on policies and procedures that keep racist, sexist, etc. issues in place, actively recruit and mentor a diverse workforce, and boldly lead the organization to eliminate cultures that keep status quo or actively keep negative stereotypes supported.  I highly recommend Kendi’s book.

Again, if whatever you are doing isn’t working, try something else. Do you have strategies to do “hard things?” There are two resources that might help. 9 Professional Conversations to Change Schools: A Dashboard of Options presents multiple conversational patterns from open reflection to ‘I don’t know where you are going to work next year but it isn’t going to be here.’  I have only had to relieve four educators in forty years during the school year. Sometimes that is what is needed.

The other resource is Responding to Resistance: 30 Ways to Manage Conflict.  As a leader our days can be filled with conflict between different groups; student and student, student and teacher, teacher and parent, leader and community, site leader and central office, etc.  How do you feel about dealing with conflict? I didn’t ask if you liked it.  The question is do you have strategies to deal with conflict?  If you are a leader, you will face conflicts.  The more repertoire, to deal effectively with conflict, the more competence and confidence you will have to deal effectively with differences.

Ben Horowitz writes, “There’s no recipe for really complicated, dynamic situations. There’s no recipe for building a high-tech company; there’s no recipe for leading a group of people out of trouble; there’s no recipe for making a series of hit songs; there is no recipe for playing NFL quarterback; there’s no recipe for running for president; and there’s no recipe for motivating teams when your business has turned to crap. That’s the hard thing about hard things – there is no formula for dealing with them.“   With more complexity, the more you need repertoire and the agility to use those strategies.

Horowitz goes on. “What’s the secret to being a successful CEO?” Sadly, there is no secret, but if there is one skill that stands out, it’s the ability to focus and make the best move when there are no good moves.

As Mary Catherine Bateson said, “life is improv.” This is why we recommend taking Improv classes.  Check out Stevie Ray at for information on classes.  They are worthwhile and help with thinking on your feet.  As a leader we need all the skills we can get.

Courage sometimes requires to us step up and into messy situations.  Ben Horowitz (2014) said, “if you are going to eat S%&t, don’t nibble.”  The longer you wait, the harder it gets.  Sometimes the more sleep you lose.

A Story from Suzanne Bailey

The Buffalo on the prairie knows

When he sees a thunderstorm coming

If he turns and walks away from it

It will last for a long time.

The Buffalo also knows

If he turns and walks toward the thunderstorm

It will pass more quickly.

Courage is turning into the situation when our fears might want us to turn away.  Not easy and necessary if you are going to be a leader.  The reason it is so important, as a leader, you model acceptable behavior.  There is a French Proverb:  “Children need models more than critics.”  We have found that is true for staff as well.  Staff is not going to do what the leader refuses to do.

Here is a metaphor for COURAGE:

C – Character & integrity

O – Overt Actions to support words and ideas

U – Uncertainty abounds in this world

R – Relationships are important

A – Agility to create plans & actions

G – Guts to follow through, standing up for what is right

E – Efficacy, I can make a difference


“It takes no courage to chronically complain.”

Angeles Arrien


Edmondson, Amy. (2019). The Fearless Organization. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons

Goldsmith, M. (2007). What got you here won’t get you there.  New York: Hyperion

Horowitz, Ben. (2014). The Hard Thing About Hard Things.  New York:  HarperCollins.

Joni, S. & Beyer, D. (2010). The right fight.  New York: HarperCollins

Kendi, Ibram X. (2019). How to be an Antiracist.   New York:  Penguin.

Slap, Stan. (2010).  Bury My Heart at Conference Room B.  New York:  Penguin.

Sommers, William and Zimmerman, Diane. (2018). 9 Professional Conversations to Change                      Schools.  Thousand Oaks, CA:  Corwin Press

Sommers, William. (2020). Responding to Resistance: 30 Ways to Manage Conflict.                                   Bloomington IN: Solution Tree.


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