Lessons on courage from inspiring female leaders

I’ve always admired strong women who have made an impact in the world. I’ve thought a lot about what it is that impresses me the most. It has to be their courage to stand up and make a difference, often in the face of extreme resistance.

I’d like to explore what characterises the courage of the women who inspire me the most in the hope that it might encourage the rest of us to keep going when life or work feel impossibly hard.

I love that the origin of courage comes from the Latin word “cor” – the word for heart. This makes so much sense to me. Listen to your heart, get grounded in what you believe in and then move forward with all that emotional power that you have generated from inside, from the heart of who you are.

Sometimes this is easier said than done, right? It’s all up there on the wall in my office as a constant reminder – that top value of mine – yes, courage –  and then of course not forgetting my life purpose – someone who lights up the world with joy and heart-felt connection. It really is my passion and my vision to empower women leaders in business –  I believe that we are the ones who together can lead the charge for a more inclusive, sustainable and compassionate world.

So you see the vision is clear – but too often in the last few months I have played small, doubting myself, procrastinating, watching from the side lines instead of going full-speed ahead with what needs to get done to make this new vision into a reality. How much easier it would be to continue with the old comfortable life instead of stepping into the challenge of who I could be for the world! Fear has stopped me for too long.

I know I am not alone. I coach many high-achieving women and so many are still quietly questioning their ability – am I good enough? Can I do it? Will I fail? Can I really change things around here? It’s especially hard for women entrepreneurs starting out on their own after a long career climbing the corporate ladder. It really takes courage to reach out and show yourself to the world, especially when the world is so busy and so stressed, when you can feel like a very small fish in a very big ocean.

But finding that fire in your heart to stay fiercely committed to your vision of making a difference –  even when you get knocked down and told it’s not possible – that’s true courage. The Margaret Mead quote inspires me with hope and reminds me that connection to others can build our faith in our abilities and mission when we feel small or powerless:  “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has”. Here are 5 personal lessons I take away from 5 women leaders who have inspired me with their incredible courage:

1. They realise it’s not about them

When we focus on the bigger picture of why we are doing what we are doing, we realise it’s not really about us in the first place. The world needs us to act, so we HAVE to get into the arena – whether we like it or not. We have to get over ourselves and our small worries to make big things happen.

Greta Thunberg stood alone in front of parliament as a 15-year-old holding a sign about her school strike because she felt she had to do something. It wasn’t about her, it was about saving the world – literally!  When the “haters” came after her, she didn’t let their intense abuse get to her – or stop her. The importance of the mission gave her intense courage in the face of personal insults. She let the hatred bounce off her because she was doing all this for a greater cause.

“When haters go after your looks and differences, it means they have nowhere left to go. And that means you’re winning”.

I realised just how incredibly brave she was when I wrote a comment on one of her posts and got trolled myself – something that had never happened to me before. If I got abuse from just posting a comment, I got a glimpse of what an intense barrage of negativity and hate she must have to put up with every day.

So let’s find courage by caring less about what others might say and more about the impact we could have. Sometimes it takes faith in something bigger to get us past our fears.

2. They use empathy to make themselves stronger

When we connect to our heart and the common humanity that unites us all, we stand up for others less fortunate than ourselves. By feeling for the plight of others, we become courageous in standing up for what we know is right. We understand that “there but for the grace of God go I” and become steadfast in the face of money-focused or selfish arguments that go against basic humanity and compassion.

Angela Merkel opened Germany’s borders for refugees and kept them open despite intense criticism from many in her own party. It felt like she almost stood alone in her open-armed embrace of the refugees when all around her others predicted doom and catastrophe, not only in Germany but all over Europe. She courageously put people above economic or national considerations. I admire her for her courageous stand as a human being: she rose above the pressure of the political party she was representing for a greater cause that was born from empathy.

So the lesson here:  when we open our hearts and keep feeling the injustice or pain someone else is facing, it strengthens and renews our resolve to keep fighting for what we believe in.

3. They take on a challenge even when they don’t feel ready for it

Sometimes we don’t feel ready for a certain challenge and so we would prefer to stay in our comfort zone. But someone pushes us or persuades us (or perhaps our bigger self tells us to go for it) so we take a chance and move forward despite our misgivings. The courage comes as we take action and we grow into the bigger role. We can’t plan it, we don’t know how to do it, but we just start and see if we can find help along the way if necessary.

Jacinda Ardern is another leader I admire for her commitment to an empathetic leadership style and for her outspoken belief in the importance of kindness – not a word used regularly in politics!

She talks about her own surprise at her rise to the top to become PM of New Zealand. 7 weeks before the election her boss, the leader of the party, handed her the position and when she realised she didn’t really have a choice she just “got on with it” as she explained in a Guardian article in published 30 May 2020. And now in May 2021 she has topped Fortune’s list of the world’s greatest leaders! 

Sometimes we can’t foresee how great we’ll be, if given the chance, so we just need to start moving in the right direction.

4. They don’t let disadvantage or bias stop them from trying

Sometimes we dream big, then “downsize” the dream to make it more acceptable to ourselves or others. We put forward supposedly rational arguments like we don’t  want that ambitious dream anyway or we get stopped by the many barriers to success for “women like us” (which may indeed be there).

Stacey Abrams is a national leader and entrepreneur who has created incredible breakthroughs in politics and business despite her outsider status and disadvantaged starting point as a black woman. She reframes her position to give us the message that differences in race, gender and class are not only surmountable but can actually give us a unique strength to rise to the top and make real change. Her words of advice: “do not edit your desires”.

So the lesson here:  know your own passion and be clear about what you want to achieve, then don’t let internal or external barriers make you think you should adjust your dreams. Perhaps your perceived “weakness” could be your very source of strength.

5. They show up as their whole selves and encourage others to be brave

Either the work environment or the desire to fit in make us feel we must hide who we really are conceal any details of our personal life. We fear not being professional or we have been told that moving outside the “pure work” arena is not a good idea. I remember in the late 90s on a work trip being told off by my boss for sharing with a client that I had been running that morning before our meeting. I couldn’t really understand even then how that could be inappropriate but sometimes “masks” are required which can rob us of our courage to be ourselves. Some people believe that cold distance enhances the feeling of respect, but to me it just robs us of the trust that comes from realising our shared humanity.

Arianna Huffington has been an source of inspiration to me ever since I “met” her at the Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco in 2013. Actually I never met her! I just feel like I have met her because she shares openly about her life, for example, her mother’s wisdom and her daughters’ struggles and triumphs. I feel close to her because she is so fearless about sharing real stories and pictures from her own life – with the whole world and strangers like me. She can be totally inspiring as a writer, speaker and public speaker whilst bringing her whole life out for us all to see and emotionally connect to.

So in 2013 I didn’t really “meet” her, I just watched her do an amazing speech on stage. She made me laugh, she made me think and she had incredible charismatic power that enthralled me. And during her speech she gave us all her email address and said “write to me”. I couldn’t believe it!  Why would she do such a thing? Such a famous, charismatic person giving us her email address? So I wrote to her just saying thank you for being so inspiring. And she wrote back!  I was even more astounded. She encouraged me to send her an article. I so wanted to do write something but in the end I didn’t trust myself. I didn’t think I was good enough. I had no courage!  I’ve been kicking myself ever since. So you see why I wrote this article and left my favourite woman leader to the end. Because it’s a story about courage and my missed opportunity. We don’t regret the things we tried, we more often regret the things we didn’t have the courage to try.

But perhaps the biggest learning for me about courage is that it’s never too late to find your courage again – just like the Lion in The Wizard of Oz! To come out of the shadows and let yourself be seen. To pick yourself back up again when you think you’ve messed things up. To decide to go for a big life even if it’s kind of late in the day. Even if means falling down time and time again and going through many sleepless nights. Because perhaps your story of perseverance will inspire someone else to be brave and do great things, even if you don’t reach your goal. Because at least you tried and trying beats hiding every time.

And when you as a leader reach out to a stranger to encourage them to be brave (like Arianna did with me), perhaps you make more of a difference than you know. Sometimes it takes 8 years to answer the call!  I still hope that one day I will be lucky enough to thank her in person for inspiring me with the leadership she brings to the world every day.

So, dear fellow brave spirits, step out of the shadows and into your light!  Let’s connect to make this world a kinder, more inclusive place for all to succeed! Let’s encourage others to show up at work with their whole hearts and their big dreams, uplifting all in our desire to make a difference.

Tell me, who has inspired you with their courageous leadership? Any gender welcome 😊  I’d love to hear from you.

Thank you so much for making it to the end of this post! If you are interested in more of what I do, please feel free to contact me via this website, or take a look at thejoycoach.com – a new, more personal site (still a work in progress 😊).


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