Courageous Leadership Starts with Being More Human

By Lynda Holt, Honorary Professor of Social Leadership and CEO of Health Service 360 (

When you’re leading in tough times, as most of the last few years have been, it’s tempting to lean into command and control, to get stuff done, and to hide your fears and vulnerabilities, staying strong for others. Sadly, this can cost you dearly, both in terms of your own well-being and your connection with your team.

Good leadership is that secret sauce that holds people together, creates hope and possibility, and allows us to achieve great things despite our circumstances. This is not as complicated or as onerous as it might sound, good leadership has some pretty basic components, most of which come down to being a decent human being.

Your people may do what they are told, because they have to, but they will remember how you made them feel. This will determine whether they trust you, engage with you, and buy into your vision. We’re talking deep human connection and belonging here, people need to feel part of something, they need to feel they are contributing or making a difference in some way.

So how do you do it, navigate being human with all the vulnerabilities that it brings, and lead other humans on a tricky and sometimes uncertain journey? You start with what you can control – yourself.

Using a simple framework helps you to explore and grow. The I CARE framework for courageous leadership pulls together five key elements of leadership in health and social care today. They are innovation, compassion, attitude, resilience, and engagement.

This is about your ability to lead change and solve problems. Innovation comes from understanding what good looks like for you and your team, then continually moving toward it. As a leader you need to pay attention to what is happening by default, what people are talking about, perhaps complaining about, working around, or simply ignoring – this might give you a clue about where to focus your efforts.

Aim to lead innovation, not manage it, let your people do that.

When people contribute and make suggestions, they feel part of the change and they commit to the journey too. This way it’s owned. They are committed to the outcome on an emotional level – they will problem-solve and innovate with you.

We’ve talked a lot about compassion, compassion fatigue, and the human cost of caring – and at an unconscious level, we stop hearing things, or zone out, when it’s repeated often enough. We are an innately compassionate species, but busy adrenaline-fuelled lifestyles can get in the way.

Imagine a spectrum with compassion at one end and judgement at the other, compassion connects us, judgement distances us. However, we are unintentionally ‘judgey’ about all sorts of things, behaviours, people, and even whole groups of society. Judgement is born out of fear – we are fearful of different people, and experiences – judgement distances us in the short term but it also disconnects us and makes it harder to lead.

Step one to being compassionate is to take a judgement detox. Take a look at where and of whom you are judgemental.

Being a compassionate leader has four stages – paying attention to what is going on – for you and others, seeking to understand, empathy, and helping – which is not the same as fixing. Your aim as a leader is to connect and enable people, not take over.

This is the thing you have the most control over, you choose how and where you show up, how you react – so focus your attention here first. Do you know what the best version of yourself looks like – if not spend a bit of time answering this question – “Who am I at my best?”

None of us are at our best all the time, but when we know what that is we can work towards the behaviours that make us feel good, fit with our personal values and ultimately make us a credible and trustworthy leader.

Remember good leaders bring hope and possibility, so create an environment of realistic optimism. This is not false positivity or deigning tough realities, it is simply focussing on what’s possible, the good stuff and the value your people add every day.

Resilience is not about toughing it out, or constantly doing more with less and it’s certainly not about being the last man standing. Resilience is about refuelling and maintenance. It’s about knowing when you can step up and when you might need to step back.

One way to do this, for yourself and for your team, is to think of your well-being like a bank account. Pay attention to what goes in and what goes out and understand that if you spend too much without putting anything in you will finish up overdrawn or even bankrupt, and in humans, this looks like burnout or becoming physically and mentally unwell.

Work out what energises you and what or who, depletes you, and then make sure you put enough energisers into your bank to stay in an operable range.

This is about how you do what you do and your ability to bring people with you. If you want people to follow you, you first need to meet them where they are, understand or at the very least hear their reality. They will tell you what you need to do to make it safe for them to engage.

Most people want to feel a sense of belonging at work, this comes when you feel seen, heard, valued and critically proud of the contribution you individually and collectively make. So, if you want to build engagement and keep tired staff energised and committed, work on value, the why you do what you do. It is this that connects people, it is this that gives people a sense of purpose and meaning at work. Resist the temptation to micro-manage, and where possible leave the what and how to your people.

It’s never too late to become the human – or the leader you want to be. Your actions and behaviour determine the leader you become, and you have control over these. Be courageous enough to stand up for what you believe in, to act on what matters to you, and to respect where others are coming from.

Good Luck on your journey.

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