Our society and our academic institutions need courageous leaders. The suggested readings in the third installment of the "Leaders Are Readers" series explore how to build courage and become a more courageous leader.
The summer reading season has passed, and crisp autumn air and fall colors are upon us. As I think about the higher education institutions that have welcomed students back to campus over the last few weeks, I find myself reflecting on my time as a student and as a faculty member. I'm struck most by my memories of the palpable energy on campus in the fall. To be honest, I miss it.
I'm also sitting with memories of the pressure that can accompany this excitement—pressure not only to provide education but also to create spaces and conversations that welcome the myriad of perspectives, life experiences, and emotions of campus community members. Leading amid the unique energy of campus at the beginning of the academic year takes real and actionable courage.
Maya Angelou said, "Courage is the most important of all the virtues because, without courage, you cannot practice any other virtue consistently."Footnote1 Leadership is no exception. People can't lead well consistently without courage. The need for courageous leadership in higher education has never been greater because colleges and universities are at the center of so many crossroads that challenge what people think, how they think, and how they come to believe in something as being true or false.
As difficult conversations, amazing collaborations, and fresh opportunities abound, here are a few books that help build courage and a couple of honorable mentions that provide guidance on navigating specific, current situations in which courage is paramount.
Forged in Crisis: The Making of Five Courageous Leaders
By Nancy Koehn
Nancy Koehn, a historian at Harvard Business School, explores leadership through "snapshots" of five courageous people: Ernest Shackleton, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Rachel Carson. She could have written five separate books but decided to bring these stories together in one to give readers a chance to learn collectively from them.Footnote2
Each of these five leaders courageously navigated through incredibly different but equally challenging circumstances. Shackleton survived the unsurvivable, saving his entire crew in 1915 when his ship sank in the ice-packed Antarctic Sea. Lincoln faced critical decisions at a scale most could hardly imagine to preserve the Union and work to free nearly four million enslaved people. Douglass, who was born into slavery and eventually escaped and secured his legal freedom, became a major figure in the abolitionist movement. Bonhoeffer died for his faith when he resisted the Third Reich. Carson completed her controversial book Silent Spring amid "large chemical companies, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and other powerful institutions poised to make war on her and the book as soon as it was published."Footnote3 Her courage to do what was right, even as she faced metastasizing breast cancer, defined this quiet scientist as a great leader.
Capturing 448 pages of stories and lessons in the space of this article would not do them justice. However, the following concepts provide a taste of what the book includes.
Koehn's use of the term "gathering years" resonated deeply with me. She defines this term as "times of self-conscious learning; in some cases, trying careers on; and looking for one's purpose."Footnote4 I've spent a lot of time over the years beating myself up for not being further along than I am. I know there are aspiring leaders reading this article who feel—like I have felt and still sometimes feel—as if the path they are pursuing isn't getting them closer to their goals. It is. They are gathering the knowledge, wisdom, and perspective that will allow them to lead later.
Koehn also provides advice for those moments when a person is physically doing one thing—driving, walking, showering—but is mentally immersed in thinking about some awful thing that could happen, even though it probably won't. Drawing on the examples from each of the five leaders, she writes that each one "explicitly refused to spend a lot of time or energy mentally playing out worst-case scenarios. . . . They used their emotional awareness and discipline to concentrate directly . . . on how to move forward [and] how to take the next step, however small."Footnote5 Leaders move forward. They take the next step on the lighted path, even when they can't see where it ends. They look back, but only to learn.
"Leaders today must nurture a strong sense of self-discipline to direct their attention and energy toward what really matters."Footnote6 I often describe my lived experience as falling victim to the tyranny of the urgent. The most pressing matter in any given moment feels like it's the most important. However, most of the time, it isn't. Many higher education leaders could benefit from a more self-disciplined approach that focuses on moving forward and organizing priorities by impact instead of urgency.
I'll end my overview with my favorite quote from the book: "Living thoughtfully, living rightly, are powerful acts of leadership unto themselves."Footnote7
Courage Is Calling: Fortune Favors the Brave
By Ryan Holiday
Life and leadership include many moments when we are, as Winston Churchill said, "figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing."Footnote8 In the short but powerful book Courage Is Calling: Fortune Favors the Brave, Ryan Holiday weaves together tales of ancient knowledge, modern heroism, and everyday life to tell the story of how courage calls each one of us to live and lead boldly.
Holiday begins a journey to investigate the four stoic virtues—courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom—with courage because, as discussed earlier, it is the foundation of many other virtues. "First, we are called to rise above our fear and cowardice," he writes. "Next, we are called to bravery, over the elements, over the odds, over our limitations. Finally, we are called to heroism . . . ."Footnote9
Having the courage to face fear and resistance and bring about meaningful change are essential traits for those working in higher education today. Fear—of not pleasing everyone (hint: it's not possible), of being canceled at any moment for the slightest misstep, of being taken out of context on social media, and of the career-ending impacts of any one of these things—is real and justified in higher education. Many leaders fear that they will somehow slip, fall, and fail in pursuit of making the world a better place. Yet, fear isn't something to avoid; it is something to face. Holiday notes, "It's been said that leaders are dealers in hope, but in a more practical sense, they are also slayers of fear."Footnote10 Leading in higher education right now is an exercise in slaying fear personally and communally.
My favorite lesson from the book is this: "Our fears point us, like a self-indicting arrow, in the direction of the right thing to do."Footnote11 To be a slayer of fear and a steward of heroism, a leader needs perseverance to face the uncomfortable. Once a leader follows the arrow, courage becomes contagious, and institutions, organizations, and systems begin to shift.
Courage Is Calling is an excellent complement to Forged in Crisis. Both books are full of great lessons and stories about building courage, but Courage Is Calling is much shorter. Each chapter takes just a few minutes to read, so it's easy to fit in a few pages between meetings or while waiting for an appointment.
Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.
By Brené Brown
Few authors have taken the leadership world by storm in the same way Brené Brown has. When I asked a group of participants at a women's leadership event to recommend a book to the group, over half recommended a book by Brown.
I have read a few of Brown's books, but Dare to Lead captures the quintessence of her leadership ideas.Footnote12 This fantastic book takes all her work on vulnerability and dives into its impact on leadership. She includes an entire section on the call to courage. By sharing her stories of vulnerability, Brown teaches leaders to face their fears of rejection, inadequacy, and failure. She writes that leaders who can do that "find the power and wisdom to serve others."Footnote13
Along the way, Brown weaves in leadership themes that are important in higher education, such as grounding work in clear and actionable values, shedding leadership armor, building trust that sticks, and feeling emotions instead of offloading them on others in a toxic cycle.
I could write more about Brown's work and its impact, but suffice it to say that the time spent reading this book is well worth it. Leaders are too often typecast as emotionless robots of intimidation, but that is the opposite of how an effective leader should act. Vulnerability is the path to leading people, and Brown is the navigator.
I want to give nods to two additional books this quarter. While they aren't specifically about courage, they focus on two topics that require immense courage: dismantling silos and breaking the myth of average.
The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers
By Gillian Tett
My experience in higher education has been marked by silos. In her book The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers, Gillian Tett defines a silo as "a system, process, department, etc. that operates in isolation from others."Footnote14 In higher education, units, departments, faculty groups, and students are siloed from one another—intentionally and unintentionally. The system is built to optimize silos. Physics majors spend their time in the physics building learning from physics professors and socializing with other physics students. Academic disciplines rule the day. Yet, staff can't thrive in silos. Higher education leaders need to break down silos in their organizations if they hope to thrive in the future. Doing so takes immense courage, and Tett offers practical advice about how to begin.
The End of Average: Unlocking Our Potential by Embracing What Makes Us Different
By Todd Rose
Although I didn't have the language at the time, one reason I left my K–12 teaching career was my frustration with the system's obsession with average. I realized it wasn't too different when I got to higher education. Todd Rose helped me to articulate what I had been feeling for so long. He wrote, "The shortcomings of our system [of higher education]—its costs, and most important, the gap between what graduates learn and their ability to get a job—are due to a deeply entrenched averagarian architecture that was established long ago."Footnote15 A high school dropout turned Harvard professor, Rose wrote The End of Average to explore and help overcome the systemic reality that "[f]rom the cradle to the grave, you are measured against the ever-present yardstick of the average . . . ." instead of being honored as a unique person with particular strengths.Footnote16 Higher education faces a watershed moment due to declining enrollments, the rise of non-traditional career paths, and more. Leaders need to respond with courage to dismantle the myth of "average" and focus on the individual.
Those who know me know that I always write about topics that address what I need to hear in the moment. Right now, I need courage in my leadership. These books have helped me think about courage in new ways, apply courage to my leadership, and begin making changes for me and my team. I hope they do the same for others. Our society and our academic institutions need courageous leaders. You can be one of them.
Be curious. Be well.
- Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey, "Maya Angelou: Courage Is the Most Important Virtue of All," Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), YouTube video, 2:41, May 12, 2013; Ann Ju, "Courage Is the Most Important Virtue, Says Writer and Civil Rights Activist Maya Angelou at Convocation," Cornell Chronicle, May 24, 2008. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
- Nancy Koehn, Forged in Crisis: The Making of Five Courageous Leaders (New York: Scribner, 2018), 1; Shackleton's story is almost unbelievable, and I cannot do it justice in the space of this article. I highly recommend Alfred Lansing, Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage (New York: Basic Books, 2015). Koehn does a great job giving a high-level overview of what Shackleton did, but Endurance is the deep dive. It's incredible. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
- Koehn, Forged in Crisis, 2. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
- Ibid., 390. Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
- Ibid., 346. Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.
- Ibid., 291. Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.
- Ibid., 367. Jump back to footnote 7 in the text.
- Ryan Holiday, Courage Is Calling: Fortune Favors the Bold (New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2021), xx. Jump back to footnote 8 in the text.
- Ibid., xxii. Jump back to footnote 9 in the text.
- Ibid., 17. Jump back to footnote 10 in the text.
- Ibid., 65. Jump back to footnote 11 in the text.
- Brené Brown, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. (New York, Random House, 2018); For those who are going through something difficult, professionally or personally, I highly recommend Brené Brown, Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution. (New York: Random House, 2015). I read it when I was struggling to find my place professionally, going through a personal heartbreak, and processing the sudden death of my father. Though not a leadership book per se, everyone—including leaders—go through tough times, so I had to take a chance and recommend it. Jump back to footnote 12 in the text.
- Brown, Dare to Lead, 58. Jump back to footnote 13 in the text.
- Gillian Tett, The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 13. Jump back to footnote 14 in the text.
- Todd Rose, The End of Average: Unlocking Our Potential by Embracing What Makes Us Different (New York: Harper Collins, 2016), 167, emphasis added. Jump back to footnote 15 in the text.
- Ibid., 10. Jump back to footnote 16 in the text.
Ryan MacTaggart is Associate Director, Professional Learning, at EDUCAUSE.
© 2023 Ryan MacTaggart. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.