The Courage Zone

“Change begins at the end of your comfort zone.”
Roy T. Bennett

Over the past 18 months, we’ve all been shoved out of our comfort zones by rapid change.

We’re living and working through some of the most difficult times of our lives. Not only are we individually and collectively moving through the complexities of a global pandemic, we are also in a moment of great decision about where we’ll go from here. We are standing at the intersection of several choices, including going back to what we know (or at least trying to) and choosing to transform an entire culture. Many of us are eagerly awaiting the return of a pre-pandemic life, while others of us have fully accepted that things will never be the same.

As a leadership development scholar and practitioner, I spend quite a bit of time thinking about what makes people good leaders. The question itself is very subjective and highly contextual, yet, if you were to ask most people about an experience they had with a great leader, you’d likely hear similar characteristics or behaviors. I’d likely name things that they did to make me feel seen, heard, understood, respected, and capable. But there’s a word that continues to come to mind, as I think about what will be required of leaders to help us move through this time: courage.

We often hear the term “comfort zone” thrown around in our society. In the field of psychology, there are three zones that we find ourselves vacillating between: The Comfort Zone, Courage Zone, and Danger Zone.

Imagine three concentric circles:

  1. The Comfort Zone. The most inner circle is the comfort zone and is where we spend most of our time. As the name implies it is the place of comfort, safety, and predictability. This zone is characterized by familiarity.  
  2. The Danger Zone. This is the most outer circle and is the place where you are stretched too far, over-stressed, and unable to move and learn and grow. This zone is characterized by paralysis and overwhelm.
  3. The Courage Zone. The courage zone is the most important; this is the space between your comfort zone and your danger zone. This is where you push the boundaries of your existing knowledge, experience, and stories. This zone is characterized by learning, growth, and confidence.

In March 2020, we were thrust out of our comfort zones into what felt like the danger zone. Adjusting to new norms and figuring out how to live through a pandemic while keeping our physical and mental health intact became the order of the day. However, while moving out of our comfort zones was forced upon us, moving into courage was not an automatic action.

Now that we’re in the last quarter of 2021, asking some of the same questions and pondering the uncertainty of the future, what intentional actions can we, as leaders, take to move into the Courage Zone?

Here are three suggestions:

  1. Rest + Reflect. Make time, before the end of the year, to really rest. Take a few days off from work, sit still, take naps and deep breaths, and reflect on your experiences this year. What have you learned about yourself and others? What new practices did you take on that are serving you well? What do you need to leave behind because it’s no longer working for you? Practices of rest and reflection allow us the mental space to see and name our lessons learned, recharge our human capacity, and gain clarity for the next journey.
  2. Celebrate. Gather your team, colleagues, family, and/or friends, and celebrate accomplishments and milestones. It is no easy feat to continue pressing forward as change happens at a rapid pace and seemingly throws us off course. Your colleagues, team members, and stakeholders have made a positive impact on their community, and they are exhausted. So, take the lead, get the party started, and celebrate their efforts.
  3. Do it Afraid. The Latin root of the word courage is ‘cor’ which means heart. So anytime we step outside of our comfort zones and activate courage, we are taking heart. Now is the time for courageous imagination, to learn from our challenges and make something good out of them. What might it look like for us to center our humanity + well-being in the future of work? How might we create work cultures + environments where everyone feels safe to bring their full selves? How might we engage each other in a collective dream for equity and liberation?
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