Courageous Leadership: A Construct Important for Nursing Educators

By Susan Sportsman, PhD, RN, ANEF, FAAN and Cathy Converse

We recently had the opportunity to give a presentation about our work on Courageous Leadership at the 2019 National League for Nurses (NLN) Summit.  Stimulated by our interest in helping nurses and others effectively navigate the organizations in which they work, we explored the health care and business literature to evaluate others’ ideas of the relationship between courage and leadership.

The rapid change, complexity and frequent conflict in the current work environment require leaders to be courageous in their actions, but exactly what does that mean?  The word “courage” is derived from the Latin word “cor,” which means heart. Dictionaries often define courage as facing difficulties without fear. We define courage as facing difficulties in spite of fear. Based upon our literature review, we defined courageous leadership as the heart to step up front and transform vision into reality.

Why did we choose to focus on the heart rather than the head? After all, we typically believe that a smart leader is a good one. The answer is because we are all human beings who think AND feel no matter how hard we sometime try to avoid the messy “feeling” part.  Of course, we all must use our brains in our work, but the underlying fabric of health care is emotional.  Therefore, despite our discomfort, we must use our emotions effectively. This requires courage. As the Buddhist monk and peace advocate Thich Nhat Hanh says, “The longest journey you will ever take is the 18 inches from your head to your heart.”

As we dug more deeply into the literature, ten concepts consistently surfaced at the intersection of courage and leadership.  Box A outlines these ten concepts.

Box A:  Concepts of Courageous Leadership


After our presentation, a number of nurse educators remarked that ongoing discussion about courageous leadership among practitioners, educators, and students is sorely needed in health care.  Thanks to all of you who spoke to us at NLN to reinforce for us the importance and timeliness of this topic. Based upon your feedback, we have posted a number of blogs on this topic on our website and will continue to do so. We believe that although most of us periodically consider our competencies in the ten concepts inherent in courageous leadership, intentionally assessing how well we use these concepts in a time of stress is important for effective leadership.  Similarly, we must intentionally prepare our students for leading courageously as they move into practice.

We are committed to addressing the complexity of education and health care through courageous leadership.  The environmental complexity brings confusion and power conflicts into the delivery of care and we will add strategies for teaching and learning about courageous leadership to our website going forward.  We would love to continue to hear your feedback about this important concern.

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