If I Only Had the Nerve

If I Only Had the NerveFor the Tin Man it was a heart, for the Scarecrow a brain, and what the Cowardly Lion wished for was nerve.  He wanted the courage to stand up for himself, for things he believed in.  He wanted to be able to roar in the face of blustery bullies like the Wizard of Oz or the Wicked Witch of the West.

There are times these days when it can feel a little like we’re all Cowardly Lions, when roaring has unacceptable consequences.

A lot of leaders took a while to get their roaring voices in full vocal tenor to speak out against intolerance after Charlottesville.  It seems there’s been more squeaking than roaring when Wells Fargo exposed yet one more ambush of its customers.  Roar about any social cause, and you’re likely to face a flurry of dissent from one side of the political spectrum or the other.  We hear much more often today about negative consequences of speaking out against egregiously bad behavior at work.

Having nerve today requires – well, having a lot of nerve.  And from what we’re hearing, it’s chased a lot of people into the shadows.  Few people want to invite into their lives the conflict and fear and risk and downright intimidation that come with the exercise of this type of courage.  Yet arguably, it has never been more important.  When the world outside your window begins to become the world inside your workplace, you have become part of it, whether you have chosen it or not.  And it forces choices on us.  Doing nothing is a choice, and sometimes it’s a reasonable choice – even a wise choice.  At other times, we need to consider other options.

How do you as a leader decide whether to make risky choices in uncomfortable environments?  Here are some questions to ask yourself.

Are there fundamental or commonly accepted values underlying this debate?  We get ourselves tangled up in our underwear pretty easily in semantics about right and wrong, but is there really a fundamental violation of a value that seems hard to refute?  Your company is looking at laying off a bunch of people and the story is an across-the-board cut, but the numbers show 60% of those being laid off will be minority workers.  Is there a fairness issue to be raised?  Depending on your organization, other foundational values that might be important to consider include such things as respect, compassion, consistency, cooperation, grace, helpfulness, professionalism, openness, sharing and teamwork.

When you stay focused on a value that people accept as commonly understood and agreed upon, your voice is more likely to be heard.  But you can’t only raise the value question – you have to pose the alternative direction that would be more synchronous with the value.  In the earlier example, you would want to counter the fairness question with proposals for how to remove both the perception and potential fact of a fairness discrepancy.

Is this situation part of an emerging pattern?  One thing that’s tiring about today’s environment is the knee-jerk reactions we’re seeing.  Not every statement merits a counter-statement.  Not every action demands a reaction.  But on the other hand, one thing we should not mistakenly do as leaders is allow a pattern to take hold without addressing it, if it has the potential to be destructive or even  just unhelpful.  Snippy shots at one another in meetings may seem trivial, but poison the work environment quickly when allowed to continue – especially when the pattern is modeled by a key leader.  Intolerance toward groups of people, or tolerance of uncivil behavior, or subtle encouragement of infighting, or public shaming.  These kinds of behaviors, when even modestly tolerated, blossom into monsters that are hard to kill later.  These are ones worth getting up the nerve to speak up against.  It does not require going up against the leader who’s the horrible role model, but it does require staking out the ground in your own work area, stating that you won’t tolerate it.  The implication will be obvious: you are putting your own job on the line for this civility in your work group.  It’s a powerful statement.

Can you feel the harm?  Lately it feels as though the outrage we experience has become a way of life.  How can that person/those people act that way/do those things?  Outrage may at one time have been the measuring stick for when to take courageous action, but it may no longer be a reliable indicator.  We’d likely be reacting frequently enough that either the risk could become unacceptable, or at least our capital would quickly become spent in the workplace.

But when you see harm to others – financial, physical or psychological – that is palpable, you carry their voice when they can’t.  When you see a group being intimidated in the workplace because of beliefs or origin or any other reason; when you hear people berated by a bully just exercising power; when you see systematic efforts to denigrate a well-regarded colleague – it’s time to find your voice.

If there’s a formal channel for reporting problems, use it.  Be factual, and describe exactly what you are seeing.  Show support for the outcasts where you can.  Talk up the colleague you admire, giving an alternative point of view to the poor narrative being circulated.  Have lunch with the bullied people and the outcasts.  Lend them a measure of your good name.  And if the bad behavior happens on your turf – a meeting you are running, for example, call a break and pull the perpetrator(s) aside.  Give them fair warning that you don’t want this intruding into your business meetings and will cut it off if it happens again.


Take a look at those questions again.  Notice that none of the questions relates to how much risk there is to you in taking a courageous stand.  That risk is always there.  It is with us every day, in every decision we make.  The real questions for us as leaders are questions of internal integrity: do our actions match our own values?  It takes nerve to assure that they do.  A little roaring only tells others we have made the sometimes-painful assessment, and decided to take on our internal Cowardly Lions.

Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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2 thoughts on “If I Only Had the Nerve

  1. To build up your strength and get that nerve, you can’t go wrong with doing some scenario analysis. You start off with, if I did this, what would happen next? Once you have that, then you ask yourself what is the absolute worst that can happen (with fear included.) Then you ask yourself what is the best thing that can realistically happen? Then it’s pretty easy to figure out what likely is going to happen.

    Seeing all that info on the page, you will get a surge of confidence what what needs to be done.

  2. Chris, what a great suggestion! Too often we go to all the worst case scenarios and never to the best case scenarios that you also suggest. Those are great confidence-builders. Thank you for your contribution! You have a lot of nerve! 🙂

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