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The traditional career ladder may be vanishing, but this skill is still key to career success

Finding courage is not an overnight accomplishment. Like advancing at work, it takes small steps.

The traditional career ladder may be vanishing, but this skill is still key to career success
[Source photo: Sami Aksu/Unsplash]

During the pandemic, maybe you decided to try something new—like learning the violin or a new language. If so, how did you start? Did you pull out the score for Beethoven’s hardest pieces? Grab an international newspaper and attempt to read it?

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I hope not.

Building a new skill is a slow, one-step-at-a-time process. For example, to eventually run a 10K, starting with a couple 1-minute intervals of slow jogging sprinkled into a walk is ideal for most of us.

Why? Because trying too much too soon is self-defeating. The pain you’d experience would undermine sticking to a training schedule needed to increase your lung capacity. As a result, your inner dialogue would punish you with defeatist rhetoric, saying this was a stupid idea because you just weren’t born to be a runner and encouraging you to quit.

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Commit to persistent practice

Here’s a pretty obvious assertion: Persistent practice is the way to build competence at something new. Yet, when it comes to building interpersonal skills, especially those that are challenging and risky, we act as if this isn’t true. We ignore Colonel Eric Kail’s assertion that we can’t be competently courageous in those critical 30 seconds if we haven’t been preparing over the prior 10 years. It’s a tough, but hard to deny, message from someone who led Army units all over the world and then taught leadership at West Point until his death.

Kail’s point is consistent with psychological research. Exposure therapy, for instance, is a well-documented approach to overcoming fears, and building skills. Want to overcome your terror of public speaking and become a persuasive presenter? An exposure therapy routine could involve learning relaxation skills and communication techniques, and then starting very small—perhaps a short talk in a low-stakes setting with acquaintances or work colleagues. It might not go perfectly, but you’d survive, learn, and realize you’re capable of taking another step.

The key is to remember that you don’t have to start big to eventually achieve big goals. In 2020, at age 21, Chris Nikic became the first person with Down syndrome to finish an Ironman triathlon, which includes swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, and running 26.2 miles in less than 17 hours. Prior to training, Nikic couldn’t swim the length of a short pool or ride a bike more than a few feet. How’d he go from there to Ironman? He committed to getting just “1% better every day” and stuck to that plan without fail.

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An unconventional ladder

Erika Kramer, a nursing home administrator, had hit a wall in her career. She’d lost her motivation, which affected her performance, which in turn eroded her engagement. After a workshop in which I introduced the process, she built a personal courage ladder. (A courage ladder is simply a visual depiction of four to five things you know are important but currently find too scary or difficult to do.) Kramer discussed the step on her first rung with a coworker and then just did it. The result? A sense of freedom and empowerment. A sense that she could do more.

So she did. Kramer next had a totally honest and productive performance conversation with her boss. Then she turned to her top rung—a talk with a coworker she’d been struggling with for seven years. Kramer told me, she “looked her in the eyes, took full responsibility for my behavior and my part in our lack of teamwork, and promised that, moving forward, there would be a big difference.” In just one conversation she stopped being a “scared leader” and began to reverse a pattern of negative interactions and avoidance.

Choosing courage, Kramer shared with me, “literally changed the path” she was on. To change your own path, you also have to give up the illusion that you’ll someday magically be less afraid or more ready without putting in the work. If you’re ready for that, here’s a concrete, actionable idea: Build yourself a personal courage ladder and start climbing it.

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First, choose and arrange several desired actions from least frightening on the lowest rung to most challenging on the top rung. Then turn one into a concrete action step. For example, change “tell Jamie the truth” into “schedule a performance feedback meeting for next week, and write down the key conclusions to be shared.” Then, do it.

Will it be easy, or go perfectly? Nope. But if you start with an appropriate action, you’ll survive and likely be motivated to do more.

Providing a model for further change

Shail Jain is the CEO of a software company. His experience climbing his courage ladder wasn’t just personally rewarding; it sparked a companywide transformation.

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Jain’s first step involved candidly sharing with his executive team his concern that the company’s caring culture was also breeding a few entitlement issues. Then he talked with an employee about a quality concern. Finally, he addressed the touchy topic of billable hours at an all-employee meeting and responded transparently to the questions and pointed comments subsequently posted on the company’s intranet.

Jain’s modeling clearly inspired others. Having watched his boss translate a courage ladder into concrete actions, the executive in charge of organizational development made a bold move of his own: He challenged each executive to build their own courage ladder and set five concrete goals. The challenge led to the executives sharing their fears, needs, and aspirations at a level never seen before.

To institutionalize, spread, and celebrate the practice, all employees were invited to publicly record their courageous conversations within a collaborative document. One of the firm’s vice presidents led the charge by taking and logging the first 10 courageous acts, and about a dozen other of his coworkers soon followed suit.

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Through a concrete plan and consistent practice, more of us can become successful at our goals. The same is true for the interactions and bold acts we avoid at work because they’re challenging. The question, then, isn’t whether each of us can do difficult things; it’s whether we’ll commit to the practice it takes to do them with some degree of success and to the persistence to get even just 1% better each time.

My advice is don’t waste any more time, build your personal courage ladder today. Then start climbing it one step at a time, reminding yourself every day that growth is about persistence not perfection.


Jim Detert is the John L. Colley professor of business administration at University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and the author of Choosing Courage: The Everyday Guide to Being Brave at Work. His research focuses on workplace courage, ethical decision-making and behavior, and other leadership topics.

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