To Develop Leadership Skills, Practice in a Low-Risk Environment

It was the second day of an intensive leadership program I lead once a year and there were 20 participants in the room. Gupta and Randi* were standing in the middle of the group, opposite each other.

“I can’t do it!” Gupta insisted as Randi stood opposite him, waiting.

Earlier in the day, Gupta told me that he overheard Randi speaking about him behind his back and he was angry and hurt. In the past, in “real life,” rather than confront Randi directly, Gupta would have become passive aggressive, complaining to others behind her back and finding ways to undermine her.

I coached him to speak with her directly about it, something that was new and scary for him.

“What are you feeling?” I asked him.

“Is ‘sick to my stomach’ a feeling?” he asked, chuckling uncomfortably.

“Sure,” I said. “And don’t wait for that to go away. Say what you need to say while feeling ‘sick to your stomach.’”

Gupta paused, staring at the floor. He was, literally, sweating.

I checked in with Randi — she didn’t know what Gupta was going to say and this was new for her too as she tended to avoid direct confrontation. But, she told me, she felt open and prepared.

“Look directly at Randi,” I encouraged him, “Take the risk.”

Most leadership trainings are about leadership — teaching ideas, sharing best practices, and increasing knowledge. But successful people rarely become better leaders because they know more. They become better leaders because they follow through on what they know.

Follow-through requires what I call, emotional courage, which is the willingness to feel the hard feelings that come when we take risks, break old patterns, and try new ways of acting. And that is how we become better leaders.

Leadership is hard in a very practical way. It’s about managing politics skillfully and effectively to achieve what’s most important; building bridges between people, departments, and silos; raising hard-to-talk-about issues in a way that others agree to address them; acting courageously in risky situations; showing up in critical leadership moments with confidence; connecting with people in a way that inspires their commitment, responding productively to opposition without losing your focus; skillfully handling people who push back; and building trusted relationships, even with difficult people or people you don’t like.

Growing emotional courage is the key to being able to take any of these risks. So, how do you grow those muscles?

Listening to a lecture doesn’t do it. Even role plays aren’t so useful because they aren’t “real” enough — they might teach us the skills, but they don’t increase our bravery enough to use them in clutch situations. And that’s what matters.

On the other hand, taking risks in “real life,” before you’re ready, comes with potential consequences. Practicing skillful confrontation while you’re still developing your skill, could damage relationships with potentially dire repercussions in your work.

The solution? Practice in situations where the perceived risk is much higher than the actual risk.

In our leadership training, the situation was real. Gupta felt everything he would feel in a similar situation at work. But there were no real consequences to a sloppy execution of his newly learned skill of speaking up and being direct. High perceived risk, low actual risk.

Try it yourself. Think of something you want to get better at: giving feedback, listening, being succinct and direct, having hard conversations — anything you think will make you a better leader.

Now, try that skill in a low-risk situation. For example, let’s say there’s a mistake on your mobile phone bill. Call the customer service rep and practice being clear, succinct, and direct. You may be amazed at how difficult it is to follow through. What if they don’t take accountability? Will you lose it? Will you backpedal for fear of sounding like a jerk? Or will you remain strong, polite, and direct?

Go slowly and feel all the feelings that come up. Those are the feelings you will feel in higher risk situations because that’s what risk feels like. So follow through and feel the risk, knowing that the actual consequences of failure are quite low.

Why do any of this? Because that’s how we expand our freedom to act on what’s most important to us.

“Randi,” Gupta said, then paused again before continuing. “I overheard you call me ‘Gupta who talks-too-much.’ Maybe I do talk too much — but it felt hurtful to hear you make fun of me. If I’m doing something that bothers you, please come to me directly and tell me.”

There was silence in the room. We all looked at Randi, who seemed sad.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

Gupta let out a big sigh of relief and everyone, including Randi, clapped for him.

*Names changed to protect privacy

Originally posted on Harvard Business Review


  1. JINCY GEORGE says:

    Peter, this was a great read. Perceived danger versus real danger- great take-away. Thank you.

  2. Maxim Dsouza says:

    Completely agree. Practice in a low-risk environment is instrumental in getting over your fear.
    It is rightly said that the discomfort caused by the fear of threat is greater than the threat itself.

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