How to Tap Into Past Moments of Courage and Cultivate More

How to Tap into Past Moments of Courage to Cultivate More

The best way to find courage, is to remember that last time you did the right thing and how it made you feel. Small moments of courage make it easier the next time.

“All courage is a threshold crossing. Often there is a choice: to enter the burning building or not, to speak the truth or not … but there is another sort of courage we are talking about here – the kind when afterward, the courageous are puzzled to be singled out as brave. They often say, I had no choice.”
– Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

Pay Attention to Small Moments of Courage to Garner Confidence For More

Courage shows up in these moments where you choose to live according to your values.

In Mark Nepo’s quote above, he describes how people are often puzzled to be called courageous. If you’ve ever done something that others might not have done, but you did it feeling that “you had no choice”– that’s because you’d made the first choice much earlier in your life.

At some point, you made a choice about what you value. About what’s important and who you want to be. Every decision after that makes the next one easier.

Until, at some point, it’s not conscious courage; it’s just you being you.

Of course, “just being you” doesn’t mean you can recklessly speak your truth.

A Courageous Moment That Backfired (Karin’s Story)

One of my most regrettable moments in my career is when I lashed out in rage at a manager in another department who I felt was discriminating against one of my top performers because of race. I used words I regret, at a decibel I regret, at a place and time I regret.

I had the speaking-up part right, and my anger was justified. No regrets there. But how I spoke up and when I chose to do it, completely derailed my ability to influence the situation and damaged my reputation. I learned so much from that regrettable moment. Courage also means that you know your triggers, you manage your emotions, and use them to take constructive action that creates real change.

In our book Courageous Cultures, we talk with navigating the narrative. Which means you identify the stories where you are the best version of yourself, as well as the times you learned positive lessons, consciously choose to remember them, and use them to inform your choices today. It becomes easier to be that best version of yourself the next time. As you do, your commitment to your values grows stronger than your fear.

Navigate the NarrativesA Powerful (and Easy Exercise)

1. Map your courage.

To build your Courage Map, make a broad timeline of your career, thinking back to your early roles as well as more recent ones. Now think about the most courageous acts you did in these roles and lessons learned along the way. If you’re like most of our clients you’ll recall some great ones that you haven’t thought about in quite some time. If you’re struggling to come up with at least three examples, ask people who know you well to describe their memory of your most courageous act at work.

2. Reflect on your courageous moments.

Once you’ve identified a minimum of three moments of courage, for each courageous act, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What motivated me to be courageous in this circumstance?
  • What did I expect to happen?
  • And, what actually happened as a result?
  • How do I feel about this incident?
  • What values did it reveal as important to me?
  • As a leader today, where would it be helpful to show up more like this or with these values?
3. Look for themes.

What do you notice about yourself in these stories?

What makes you proud?

Can you identify the essence of these stories that you hope to carry forward into your future stories?

What lessons do you have to share with your team?

How will you tell them?

4. Invite your team to reflect on their courageous moments as well.

Invite your team members to complete the exercise and schedule some time to discuss as a team. Have each person pick one story to share. Look for themes? What do you notice about the underlying values of these choices? What are the key lessons from these stories you can leverage as you begin your work to build a more Courageous Culture?

Start Here to Build a Courageous Culture

Want to learn more about building a courageous cultures on your team? Download a FREE sample chapter and take our FREE Courageous Quiz here.

See Also: How to Disrupt the Disruption and Help Your Team Move Forward

10 stories great leaders tell interview with paul smith

10 Stories Great Leaders Tell – Interview with Paul Smith


One of the most effective leadership communication tools you’ll ever have is a powerful story. Join David and his guest, Paul Smith – an expert in leadership and business storytelling – for a powerful discussion of how to tell a good story, the stories great leaders tell, and where to find your stories. Paul reveals how you can use story to build a better connection with your team and translate your leadership philosophy and values in a way people will not forget. And yes, there are some fantastic stories!

Get Paul’s book: The 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell

Get the Workbook companion to 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell

Connect with Paul at his website:

A Case-For-Change Story That Works

A Case-For-Change Story That Works

Today, we’re excited to bring you a guest post by Paul Smith, one of the leading experts in business storytelling.

10 stories great leaders tell

As an experienced leader, no doubt you already tell a few stories. But how do you know you’re telling the right stories? What’s the most important story you should be telling?

That’s a question I’ve thought a lot about. And after interviewing over 300 CEOs, leaders, and executives in 25 countries around the world about their use of storytelling in business, I finally have an answer. My shortlist of the most important stories leaders need to tell include stories about where we came from (a founding story), where we’re going (a vision story), and how we’re going to get there (a strategy story), among several others.

But for this article, I wanted to focus on the one I call a “Why we can’t stay here” story – in other words, a case-for-change story.

Joey’s Story

Here’s an example:

In February 2015, National Public Radio aired a story about Joey, a ten-year-old boy in Gainesville, Florida, suffering from a rare form of kidney cancer. When Joey was diagnosed in March 2013, the cancer had already spread to his abdomen, chest, and neck. He went through two surgeries and five rounds of oral and intravenous chemotherapy, none of which worked for more than a month or two. Eventually, he’d exhausted all the available treatments.

So, his mother, Kathy Liu, tried to get treatments that weren’t available. She heard several new immunotherapy treatments were in clinical trials, but none of the trials were accepting children.

Then in September, the FDA approved Keytruda, the first in the new class of immunotherapy drugs called PD-1 inhibitors, created by Merck. Despite being approved for use, his doctors were hesitant to try the new drug on Joey because it wasn’t clinically tested on children.

Kathy found a doctor in Cincinnati willing to try. So, her whole family packed their things in Florida and moved to Ohio.

Joey got the first injection of Keytruda on October 14, over a year and a half after being diagnosed. The tumors in his neck shrank significantly. And the ones in the rest of his body stabilized. But Joey was already weak when the treatment started, and the cancer had an eighteen-month head start.

Joey died the day before Thanksgiving.

Kathy told the NPR reporter, “If Joey could [have gotten] this drug last year, even just a couple of months earlier, maybe it [would have been] a different story.”

Kathy lost Joey that day. But she hasn’t given up her fight. Today, she runs a foundation called Joey’s Wings that raises awareness and money specifically for pediatric cancer research.

When that story aired on NPR, one of the people who heard it worked at a company that had just retained me as a storytelling coach. The industry they worked in produced lifesaving products but took a notoriously long time to get them to market—sometimes a decade or more.

So, like most of their competitors, one of the things they were working on was how to get products to market faster. But changing a complex, decade-long process is hard work. The motivation to earn profits faster didn’t seem sufficient to move the organization to make the radical changes necessary. My job was to help them develop a case -for-change story.

When one of the participants in my workshop shared NPR’s story of Kathy and Joey, it immediately became the basis for our story—our case for change.

Think about that. Keytruda wasn’t their product. And Joey wasn’t their customer. But it did become their story—or at least a fictionalized version of it. Because they knew the same thing was surely happening with the lifesaving products they were working on. And having a human reason to do all this hard work was a more effective motivator than higher profits and a growing stock price.

Tips to help you craft your own case-for-change story

Start by asking yourself: “Who stands to benefit from this change?” Surely, it’s good for someone or something your audience cares about, or it wouldn’t be a priority for the company.

Once you know who that is, talk to them and ask these kinds of questions:

  • What’s their life or work like today (prior to making this change)?
  • What problems or frustrations do they experience?
  • How would their life or work be different once we implement this change?
  • What are the tangible ways you’ll know the change is working for them?

Sure, not everyone will have a story as compelling as Kathy Liu because not everyone’s job is curing cancer. But whatever it is that you and your company are trying to do with this change will surely benefit someone. The point is, a story about the human impact of the change, whether that’s a benefit to the employees who have to go through the change or to your customers or to the community, it will likely be more compelling than just telling people how much money it’ll save.

Craft your own Kathy Liu story. That will be your personal case for change.

To see an example of each type of story, along with a few tips to help you find and craft your own, check out The 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell.

You can connect with Paul at 

leadership and storytelling

A Strategic Story about Strategic Storytelling

Over the years, I have used strategic storytelling workshops to help drive key messages, build teams, and enhance communication skills. Today, I share the story of how my interest in that began, and why I frequently use it in my leadership today.

The Strategic Story Behind Strategic Storytelling

The Dramatic Beginning

Many years ago back in my HR days, I spent the better part of a year working on an intensive front-line leadership development program. We had interviewed everyone, built the competency models, created the curriculum and worked with vendors to import expertise on specific topics. Then, the whole thing came to a screeching halt.

A big merger was announced, and the program was put “on hold.” Everything was changing leadership, organizational structures, priorities, funding views about certain competencies. It just wasn’t “the biggest rock” at that point. This stuff happens. I understood the dynamics, but I was devastated. All that work and there were still frontline leaders that needed development now. The work wasn’t changing at that level, and we had identified a need. The organization was full of young, inexperienced leaders. And we were young HR leaders, with passion and a cause.

I sat in the conference room with my co-worker with whom I had collaborated on this project. We just looked at one another. What should we do now? After we got over feeling sorry for ourselves, we got to work.

The Story Continues: Storytelling Workshops to Transfer Leadership Mindset

We decided that what we wanted to do most of all was to find a way to “transfer leadership mindset.” The best leaders we saw at the front lines were the ones who had some scar-tissue from experience, combined with other leadership competencies. If only we could help to accelerate the learnings of that experience to others. How could we do that? For free?

Our answer storytelling.

Without announcing our intentions (just a causal whisper to our bosses), we created a series of strategic storytelling workshops designed for various levels of the business.

In these workshops, we would ask each leader to reflect on their own values, priorities, and history and identify a personal story that reflected their approach to leadership. The stories would then be shared with the team, and each leader would offer feedback on their story and delivery. The themes from each story would be discussed and leveraged to create norms for the team (or organization). The participants would work to identify opportunities to incorporate strategic storytelling into their communication plans.

Once we had our strategic storytelling plan, we made appointments to meet with the friendliest senior leaders we knew to sell in our concept. We told our story of delayed funding, and our storytelling solution. We were met with what I can best describe as a “what the heck” response and an invitation to try it in various contexts and levels across the company. The best response was from the exec who had “used strategic storytelling for years.” He then pulled out a pencil-on-graph-paper strategic communication plan matrix with his 3 main messages for the year, and the various stories he would tell in different contexts and levels to reinforce it. Game on!

We held everything from large scale meetings of frontline leaders with storytelling circles to intimate executive teambuilding sessions. The best stories were the ones where the leaders allowed themselves to be vulnerable, which was particularly cathartic and important at this time of changing scenery. (We later captured this technique, key learnings, and a summary of the themes gathered from this key time in an ASTD Storytelling InfoLine (the link I include here mostly for nostalgia, not selling).

So now I ask you

What key messages did you take away from this story?


In the years that followed, I have used the storytelling workshop concepts in my own leadership and have facilitated sessions with my own team. Yesterday, I shared a post on Lead Change Group on this and other “Do It Yourself” leadership techniques. I hope you will enjoy. DIY Leadership: Easy Leadership Programs You Can Run Yourself.