Organizational Courage – Part 2

Organizational Courage – Part 2

What does organizational courage demand?

In part one of my two-part post, I introduced the notion of organizational courage and shared my thoughts on what it is and provided some framing. In this post I will share practical strategies and action steps you can take to build courage within your organization. 

As we know, the root for bravery is medieval French (“brave” meaning “splendid, valiant”) and medieval Italian (“bravo,” which originally meant “bold, wild, or savage”), and one could get the idea that bravery is all about show—and that drama, outward appearances, and public approval are important aspects of bravery. However, the root for courage is the Latin word “cor,” meaning “heart.” So, courage is about doing what is closest to the heart—in other words, what is important and gives us life.

The motive for courage is what makes it special; the role of courage is to make our vision and values real. Hence, I define organizational courage as the will to act in the face of fear or despair in order to enhance constructive and human growth.

Courage demands a personal vs. unexamined commitment1

When an organization simply “sells” the vision and “socializes” employees, it does not foster a personal commitment to deeper values and meaning. The introspection needed to personally commit to an action or idea is not performed by the vast majority of people and is not encouraged in organizational life. If one does take the time to reflect on the deeper meaning of an issue, the resulting values and actions will often fly in the face of currently established norms. Courageous people raise questions that others would not even think to ask. Remember the management team mentioned in part one of this blog post? What each of them struggled with was personal commitment—for the first time, they were faced with examining the meaning of the vision and the potential impact on their lives.

Courage demands being centered in values and vision

In many organizations, the vision and values, if stated, are rhetoric nicely framed on the wall or stuck in desk drawers and hauled out once a year for the annual report. Being “centered” in the vision and values means being continually focused and in dialog about them throughout the organization and, therefore, ensuring that they truly drive the organization’s day-to-day operating culture.

Courage means facing fears, living with anxiety, and letting go of results

I have watched people at every level of an organization wait patiently to “be empowered” from above, including a president who wanted to “be empowered” by the board. Courage is the power in empowerment.

When we strive to create our vision, the results aren’t predictable. To worry and obsess about them and try to control the outcome of our efforts before we even start will paralyze us. Unfortunately many organizational processes not only encourage but promote this “analysis paralysis” and penalize heavily for mistakes made along the way.

How do you build organizational courage?

Wherever you are in the organization

Empower yourself first. 

It is critical to clarify your own vision and values before signing up for someone else’s. Most adults have not thought about their values since they were teenagers, and yet our personal values shape our actions and responses to life. No matter where you are in an organization, you need to know what you stand for first. Then you can decide if the vision and values espoused by the organization are something you want to embrace. There will be no joy in working for an organization that you cannot fundamentally support. If vision and values have not been clarified or are out of focus, you have an opportunity to help shape them.

Start working in your “own backyard.” No matter if you run a business, manage a department of 70, or simply manage your own desk, you can start to create the kind of organization in which you want to work. Are you committed to providing stellar customer service? Then start giving it to everyone for whom you work and who works for you, rather than complain about poor service from others. By doing so, you will become much more centered in what customer service means, and by your actions you will begin to show others how to follow suit. You can start a multiplier effect simply by acting on the vision and values to which you are committed, and have a powerful impact on the organization without needing a fancy title or positional authority.

Help the organization find its touchstones and anchors.

An organization’s vision, mission, and values are its core, its anchors during turbulent times. They reflect our highest call to make a difference, feel useful, and be part of a successful and worthwhile organization—but we need to translate that call to everyday action, and sometimes we need help in doing that. A touchstone is a symbol, idea, mental picture, or story that brings us back to what’s important, to rapidly call us back to the vision and values when we seem adrift and confused. No matter where you are in the organization, you can help people define their touchstones and enrich the culture with stories and symbols that provide guidance during difficult times.

As an executive or manager

Examine and acknowledge your own fears first.2

When working with the concept of organizational courage, it’s important that we start with ourselves first. Fear is a normal human emotion. It can be rational or irrational—it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that suppressing it makes it grow because we’ve never brought it into the light for a good, hard examination. So we just continue to feed the fear and justify its existence.

What are executives and managers afraid of? Beyond the obvious business and personal survival fears, common fears are those of not being good enough, not being needed, losing control, disappointing others, and being “found out” (that one isn’t as good as he/she projects). What’s interesting about fear is that it makes us all believe that we are the only people who have this problem.

Before you can help your employees move past their fears, you must work on yourself first. This requires probing gently and honestly into the depths of your own fears. One technique is to map them down to the deepest possible level and examine what you are really afraid of and why.

Look at what you do that communicates or reinforces fear.

Executives especially can look totally impenetrable to the rest of the organization. Human frailties are masked over by position and title. If you have a strong personality, as most entrepreneurs do, your mere presence can intimidate people and your slightest comment taken as a firm command or reprimand to the affected parties. You may not even know what you do that strikes fear into the hearts of your employees, but fear you they will. So it is up to you to understand how you come across, show your own humanity, and change your behavior. Do you bark orders at your staff? Do you find only mistakes in the work presented to you and forget to praise their efforts? Do you constantly remind them, even in subtle ways, who pays the bills and what they can do if they don’t like it there? Do you shame them for making mistakes? You probably have legitimate concerns about your business, but how you communicate them will dictate the level of fear in your organization.

Help your organization to name and acknowledge its fears.

A lot of fear in organizations is caused by events—mergers, acquisitions, economic downturns, technical innovations, job changes, lawsuits, layoffs, etc. It is critical to get people to verbalize their fears and understand that it’s normal and OK to be afraid. How we act on our fears is what’s important.

Talk to your employees about your own fears and your own choices based on your vision and current reality. Ask them to share theirs. Acknowledge that it is a fearful time and that it is OK to be afraid. Remind them that fear is a normal emotion and that courage means walking with fear, not being fearless.

Give your employees as much information as possible about current reality—even if the outlook is not great. Holding out on them only feeds their fears because they will be convinced that the situation is worse than it is and act accordingly. Treat your employees like adults who can take care of themselves versus children that you need to protect, and you will get a workforce who act like adults.

Organizational courage is attainable, but it’s an inside-out job!

Be personally courageous—modeling courage is the best way to promote it.3

Do you have a management team that can’t seem to get the courage to do what needs to be done? Then you need to show them. Be voracious in your quest to acknowledge and embrace current reality: request and listen to feedback, get a variety of views, challenge your own filters, and admit your own fears. In front of your team, choose and re-choose your vision every day. Every meeting, ask what you need to do, that day, to help realize the vision. Then do it…and let go. 4

Even if the results of your actions are not seen on a daily basis, employees watching you be honest with yourself (and them) and then take appropriate action in spite of fear will be called to act a little more courageously themselves. True courage shines like a beacon and lifts up our spirits, reminding us that we are bound to each other in common humanity.

Organizational courage is an elusive, yet wondrous power. It is a quality that is critical to giving our lives and organizations meaning, and to move us through the upheaval of modern day. Organizational courage is attainable, but it’s an inside-out job!

What are your thoughts and what would you add to this topic? I welcome and look forward to your comments on LinkedIn.

[Editor’s note: This blog post was adapted from an article written by Cathy and published in Minnesota Ventures, Oct. 1991; it was republished in the Minnesota Ventures Growth Guide, May 1993; and has been updated for this blog, April 2019.]


1Walston, S. F. (2010, July 10). Awakening Courageous Leadership. Retrieved from

2Taylor, J. (2009, October 21). Business: Why Change is So Hard, and How to Make it Easier. Retrieved from

3Tardanico, S. (2015, January 13). 10 Traits of Courageous Leaders. Retrieved from

4Klein, M., & Napier, R. (2003).  Transform The Courage to Act:  5 Factors of Courage to Business. Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black.


Creating a culture INSIDE that builds public trust OUTSIDE

Creating a culture INSIDE that builds public trust OUTSIDE

Culture, specifically the culture within your department, is everything when it comes to building public trust.


The social capital of your organization is built upon the trust of the public.  This is especially true in law enforcement, where employees are taking action in ways that not everyone appreciates.  Many agencies in the policing world are on the lookout for ways to build more trust with the community while minimizing activities which destroy this trust.  How do they do so – with meaning and consistency?  What are some strategies which will provide the most benefit for their valuable time?  Well, it isn’t about posting touching stories on social media or by organizing community events. 

It’s by creating a constructive culture inside that builds public trust outside.  Period. 

If you want collaboration and cooperation to happen between the police force and the community, it needs to start within the department. 

We need innovation in policing: to foster new ideas, drive alliances with stakeholders, and engage employees at their highest realms of performance. When officers are restricted with too many rules, made to frequently run decisions by a supervisor, or are forced into a cookie-cutter version of a cop, their chance to innovate is squashed.  They have less control over how their work gets done.  These are all factors which Human Synergistics International, a culture company, has pinpointed as directly related to a defensive culture, and a defensive culture is all about protecting yourself.  (

When an organization runs primarily in a defensive fashion, it loses out on productivity, retention, and customer (or community) satisfaction.  In order to make the switch from a warrior to a guardian mentality, as identified in the President’s Task Force Report on 21st Century Policing, this needs to change. An agency needs to have a constructive culture instead.

Building a constructive culture within the department creates more engaged officers who are achieving their goals, bringing their whole selves to work, and deploying creative tactics and sound decision-making skills to the situations they encounter. 

How would the community react if officers 

  • gave more encouragement to each other, shared more ideas, and engaged in more courageous conversations with peers?

How would things be different if officers were able to – 

  • be a bigger part of planning for the future of their department, more frequently deploy novel ways of thinking, and embrace the unique differences they each have to offer?

These are some of the primary elements of a constructive culture, according to Human Synergistics. Ideally, through a constructive culture, officers uphold the agency’s mission on a daily basis, feel empowered to perform their duties, and feel supported by their supervisors, amongst many other measures. 

Through using the tools provided by Human Synergistics, an agency can assess where they stand against many other organizations and what factors they need to work on in order to perform more constructively.  In over 45 years of research, Human Synergistics has found that constructive organizations increase efficiency, retain their employees, and are more effective at what they do. 

As consultants certified and experienced in the use of these tools, we help agencies develop proven roadmaps for change to guide the entire department, from the top leaders to the line workers, in the movement from the current culture to their ideal culture.  By fostering a constructive culture within a public safety department, officers and staff can develop the skills, tools, and confidence they need to build public trust and provide outstanding service to the community.


Amber Peterson is a partner at Peterson & Perme Associates, LLC.

Amber Peterson

Contact Peterson & Perme Associates

Phone: 952.831.4131


Organizational Courage – Part 1

Organizational Courage – Part 1

On a recent bright Minnesota morning, tucked into one of the thousands of conference rooms across the state, a management team sat somberly. Several weeks earlier they had participated in a meaningful retreat with key employees and clients, rediscovering and clarifying their vision, values, and goals for the organization. Spirits were high that day and energy seemed to crackle as it moved about the room, fueled by the vision of what they wanted to create. Now, however, new developments in corporate politics made the vision seem nigh on impossible, and the group was about to surrender in defeat, once again melting into the mediocrity of organizational bureaucracy.

Finding personal courage is hard enough, but what happens when an entire organization needs courage?1Courage is the will to act in spite of fear or despair, for the purpose of human growth. Fostering organizational courage is difficult but the key lies in being true to vision and values while at the same time embracing current reality, despair, and fears.

What takes courage in an organization?

Facing and naming current reality

This sounds simple, but it is extremely difficult to be honest about current reality.2 Truth hurts sometimes, and therefore we have all developed filters that remove the unpleasant parts, especially if we are party to their creation. When these filters are institutionalized, they can blind everyone in an organization to what is really going on, both internally and externally, with markets and management and finances. When people in organizations deny their reality, it also makes asking for help nearly impossible—if done, it is usually under duress while blaming others and too late for anything other than a crisis intervention.

Institutionalized filters can take many forms:

  • executives who only want to hear good news and are threatened by negative results,3
  • management reporting systems that report on the wrong things,
  • bureaucracies that distort and fragment information,
  • a general intolerance and/or misuse of feedback, and
  • procedures and processes designed to “channel” information and omit what doesn’t “fit” from the agenda.

In one large corporation, the president had been so sheltered from employees and the organization in such turmoil that employees themselves started communicating horizontally via an unauthorized media platform about their concerns, feelings, and perceptions about what was happening. Upper management found out about it and planned to take action to ensure this would never happen again, but the president “stayed the execution” and silently monitored the feedback. In another organization, where the business was headed south, the division controller was told that it would be political suicide to forecast anything other than a “make” on year end numbers.

It takes courage to tell people, as openly and caringly as possible, what they may not want to hear. As an employee, it takes even more courage to give that feedback, because all too often you can be “shot” or written off as a whiner, a troublemaker, or—worse yet—a poor performer.

It’s much easier to live in a fantasy world and pretend that everything is OK and under our control. The latter is especially important in traditional management, whose function is dedicated to plan, organize, measure, and control. The underlying assumption is that we have control over the world around us, when we really don’t. The only control we have is over our own actions.

Living values and vision

No matter where you are in an organization, there is risk involved in living values and vision.4 Granted, it is easier for an executive to demand accountability from others in this, but he or she must also live the vision and values and be willing to be held accountable for them. It takes courage to tell people what you believe in, ask to be challenged if you do not live up to it, and then really listen when someone gives you feedback!

In one example, a merger of two companies was heralded with much fanfare, and the new executive team made a point of creating and sharing their vision and values with the new organization. It was an uplifting experience, beautifully done. They used all the right words, and the pride and hope on people’s faces was evident. What a pity that the executives did not hold themselves accountable to their values for superior customer service and quality;  it showed in how they managed and treated their people, who they even referred to as “the help.” Within three months, anger and bitterness replaced the hope and pride as people felt confused and misled. Needless to say, customer service and quality declined.

Making choices and setting priorities

Especially in an age of “Do it all, now!,” it takes courage to set priorities and make strategic choices. Just the act of telling your boss, your customers, your employees, or your constituents that you are going to focus your attention on several key issues (as opposed to the normal slateful) is difficult. Doing it is even harder. We are used to hearing ourselves and others talk about priorities, and then get distracted with a myriad of other issues that seem easier or safer or more immediate. Meanwhile, the “priorities” continue to water down until even reciting them becomes a joke. Maintaining focus takes courage, because it means making choices about how to spend your time and energy, often in new and different ways, and not everyone may be happy with the choices.

Sustaining spirit

How often have you felt beaten down by “the system?” I have heard employees, managers, and CEOs from the same company lament their powerlessness to deal with “the system.” That is because it takes an incredible amount of energy to overcome systemic barriers that are actually organic in nature—they fuel their own growth. After a while it takes too much effort to be creative, and even organizational “champions” lose their spirit. The key lies not in pushing harder but in finding the leverage points necessary to create change. But it takes real courage to find the energy to do this when what you feel is complete despair that anything will help.

Facing fears

Fear is a “four-letter word” in organizational life. We don’t want to talk about it, and we deny we even feel it. We’ve been taught all our lives not to be afraid, so to admit fear is to admit weakness and failure, and the last place we want to do that is in our jobs or businesses!

Yet fear feeds on itself and grows in darkness; it can ultimately paralyze an entire organization. Fear is normal and OK to have. Courage means walking with fear. Naming and embracing the fears that you and others have about your organization or your future is vitally important. Until fear is brought into the open, it takes control of us and we cannot make appropriate choices. If we can acknowledge our fear, it loses its grip and we can choose to progress despite it.

What is Organizational Courage?

More than bravery

It is possible to be brave without being courageous. If you work long, hard hours and do what the culture expects, you might well be lauded for your heroics. At the same time, will you have really made a difference?

The root for bravery is medieval French (“brave” meaning “splendid, valient”) and medieval Italian (“bravo,” which originally meant “bold, wild, or savage”). One quickly gets the notion that bravery is all about show—and that drama, outward appearances, and public approval are important aspects of bravery—whereas the root for courage is the Latin word “cor,” meaning “heart.” So courage is about doing what is closest to the heart—in other words, what is important and gives us life. The motive for courage is what makes it special.

I define organizational courage as the will to act in the face of  fear or despair in order to enhance constructive and human growth. It means that you have a genuine concern for the development of human and organizational potential with an appreciation for the interconnectedness of all living things. Organizations are nothing more than people linked together by a web of activity toward a common end. We organize because we want to accomplish something. And when that “something” beckons us to reach beyond ourselves and join together to create something worthy of us, it is called a vision. The role of courage is to make our vision and values real.

How do you build organizational courage?

In part two of my blog post titled, “Organizational Courage, How to Build it,” I will share practical strategies and immediate action steps you can take starting tomorrow to build courage within your organization!

[Editor’s note: This blog post was adapted from an article written by Cathy and published in Minnesota Ventures, Oct. 1991; it was republished in the Minnesota Ventures Growth Guide, May 1993; and has been updated for this blog, April 2019.]


1Perme, C. (1998, November). From the Heart. Retrieved from

2Perme, C. (2015, July 23). Organizational Culture: The Memory of an Elephant. Retrieved from

3Kanter, R. M. (2011, December). Courage in the C-Suite. Retrieved from

4Beilke, S. (2016, February 23). Culture Creep: The Impact on Business Results. Retrieved from

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