What is courageous leadership?

Written by: Benjamin McElwee, Health and Social Care Policy and Practice Officer, See Me

Published: 13/02/2018

Benjamin shares his speech from the first Academy Courageous Leadership event, and asks - what really makes a courageous leader?

Leadership is normally about balance. For example, between delivering outcomes and developing people; between facilitating and leading; between confidence and humility; between fire-fighting and allowing freedom, creativity and time to develop innovative solutions and cross-sectoral relationships.

But maybe truly courageous leadership is about upsetting that balance.

For example, upsetting the balance as a health and social care professional by no longer being overly prescriptive and instead facilitating people requiring care to come to their own solutions, and to co-produce services alongside you – to involve people in their design, delivery and evaluation. Or perhaps as a manager you decide to delegate tasks based on skills and interest rather than job title or remit – and you let people make mistakes and have their back.

And maybe courageous leadership is slightly distasteful or questionable in the eyes of others.

If you, as a professional, decide to share your own lived experience with your colleagues to challenge their assumptions and behaviours, or share your experience with the people in your care to build rapport and empathy.

An example could be the Psychologists Against Austerity campaign, where a professional job group came together to oppose what had been accepted in the mainstream media and the political discourse as an economic necessity – which it is not – instead of a neoliberal ideology, which it is.

When people who we expect to be apolitical become political, many find that distasteful. But I see it as courageous – particularly if it’s evidence-based and a direct result of dissatisfaction with a harmful status quo.

Courageous leadership is about taking deliberate risks.

When organisations rethink what their core values or assets are – in tech they call this ‘pivoting’. Think of Slack – a communications platform valued at over $5 billion – that pivoted away from its original sector (video games), after realising its true value lay in the internal messaging platform it had created as a way to communicate more efficiently.

Courageous leadership also requires authenticity.

For example, when government-funded organisations criticise bad government policy without the expected deferential timidity. When organisations walk away from contracts because they don’t fit with their values or skills. When our See Me Community Champions create projects to tackle stigma and discrimination that align with their interests – like forming running clubs, or putting on literary events. And when our Young Champions deliver mental health awareness training to their peers and challenge stigma amongst educators and professionals.

And at the end of the day, courageous leadership always focuses on the desire for a better world, even if that may come at a cost. 

This could be on a personal or organisational level – for example, if a health and social care manager decides to address poor practice and a deficient workplace culture instead of holding a veil over it. Or it could involve organisations sharing their failures so that others may learn.

If, instead of chasing funding for themselves, organisations chase outcomes that require collaboration with others – even where their own contributions may not be as recognised. “In vogue” language might call this systems-thinking, or collaborative leadership.

To me, all of these things are truly courageous.


Benjamin McElwee is the Health and Social Care Policy and Practice Officer at See Me – Scotland’s national programme to tackle mental health stigma and discrimination. See Me are currently exploring how people with lived experience can have influence in health and social care – if you are interested in getting involved please contact benjamin.mcelwee@seemescotland.org . All views expressed in this blog are the author’s own.

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