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Acting on a Moment of Career Courage

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 19/10/2015 Margaret Ruvoldt
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In preparing for a group mentoring session recently, I found myself reflecting on examples from my career that I could share with the group about courage. We had been discussing the importance of demonstrating leadership before you are given a title or responsibilities beyond the scope of what might be found in your job description.
I am fortunate in my work at 2U to work in a company culture that not only values different opinions, but also requires everyone to speak up. I recognize that has not been the case in every environment I have worked in and it is a rare gem in organizations. To prepare an anecdote to share with the group of finding my voice, I reached back to a moment with a former employer to show that even when the risk is great, the benefit of the courage was well worth it.
In a meeting more than a decade ago, I was among a small group of leaders facing a very difficult choice for our organization. It was a heated debate with more than two paths under consideration. While the most senior member of the group running the meeting was asking for brutal honesty, it had been the experience of almost all of us that a wrong step in contradicting him was a sure fire way to get your head handed to you verbally. He was normally someone with very high emotional intelligence, but at times, his conviction and his sense of personal responsibility left him less flexible.
Twenty minutes into the discussion, I spoke up for the second time and started with "In my opinion" and gave my view of which of the options I believed was the correct one. Before I could give any reasoning behind what I said, he immediately shouted "You're wrong."
In every other meeting of this type, that would be followed with a solid and loud dressing down of my point of view. Before he could finish taking the breath he needed to explain what a moron I was, I jumped in and said, "I can't be wrong. All of I have done so far is state my opinion. By definition I can't be wrong about what my opinion is. We can argue the facts or my reasoning in arriving at it, but you haven't heard that part yet."
The silence in the room thumped in my ears and that little voice in my head was snickering "way to go, idiot."
With a wave of his hand, he let me have the floor. Ten minutes later, I hadn't persuaded him that I was right and we eventually decided upon a different suggestion than mine. That moment, however, changed our relationship going forward. I found that he sought my counsel more frequently and sent other people to ask me for guidance as well.
That experience has empowered me in my career since that day.
There are two lessons I hope to impart by sharing this moment of courage. First is to embrace your opinion and find your voice. Don't let another shout you down until you have been heard. While you may well lose the argument, you are saying much more about your voice as a leader than you are about your view on the topic at hand. Ruth Owades, serial entrepreneur and CEO, points out in her advice to young women, you must take risks and know it is okay to fail.
Second is for leaders to remember that you do yourself a disservice if you create a culture in which it requires a moment of courage for a member of your team to share a controversial or contradicting point of view. Dissenting and differing opinions are critical. If you cannot celebrate the voices and the success of your team, you may find them leaving or outpacing you. Without them, you are depending entirely on your own experience and are a dictator, not a leader.
Looking back on that moment, it turned out better than I could have predicted. If it hadn't, I would still consider that a successful moment of courage. It wouldn't have been a fatal career choice and I would have regretted remaining silent.

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