When I was 10, I did one of the first big brave things I can remember.
Although still in middle school, my friends and I were so perturbed by the xenophobic language a teacher used in a lesson that we decided we’d complain to the head.
We bowled up to the office of the headteacher, an avuncular Welshman called Mr Jones. There were five or six of us and I was at the front of our lobby group.
Having rehearsed our lines, I knocked on the door. “Come in,” said a booming voice.
At the very moment I opened the door my mates scarpered. I was left to face the music and put my case across solo.
My horror was compounded by the realisation that Mr Jones was in the middle of a meeting with the mayor (a big deal if you came from a small Fenland town).
I spluttered out my lines, feeling incredibly exposed and vulnerable, and was thanked for my comments. I closed the door wanting the ground to swallow me up.
The next day, back in lessons, Mr Jones unexpectedly arrived to address the class. This rarely happened and my friends gave me a knowing look when he arrived as if to say: “You’re really for the high jump now.”
But then, to my surprise, Mr Jones spoke about how well I had put across my case, that I had represented the school impressively. He was taking what I’d said seriously.
What a hero! It was everything you could want from a teacher.
Why courage counts
Now, why do I tell this story as we start a new year? Well, I think this tale surfaces three useful reminders.
First, leading is often lonely. This was one of my first teachable moments about leadership. But it unearthed a feeling that I was going to experience throughout my career.
There are times when, as a leader, you have to stick your neck out, say something on your own that isn’t easy and know people aren’t always standing behind you.
But you do it because you know it is the right thing to do. Your values must always guide your actions.
Second, as leaders, what we say and do – and, equally, what we don’t say or do – shapes the leaders around us. Mr Jones’ deliberative action, to come back and speak to the class, had a profound effect on my leadership journey.
Imagine if he’d not taken the time to do that? It’s why teachers, youth workers and anyone acting as role models for children and young people should be cherished, thanked and, in the case of public servants, paid properly.
And finally, this was a lesson in courage.
I respect people who say they’re fearless. But the word fearless implies people act in a way that’s without doubts and anxieties, whereas most of us have to face our fears head-on when taking big leadership decisions.
As our chief scout, Bear Grylls, says: “Being brave isn’t about not feeling scared. Real courage is all about overcoming your fears.”
Standing up for what we believe in
We start the year as social-sector leaders with a worry list of decisions that need to be taken. And all of them will require courage.
That might mean standing up for marginalised and vulnerable communities with diminishing resources; confronting that difficult decision about a staff member we’ve been putting off; standing up to bullies or delivering a difficult message to a board or staff team. And there will be things in people’s personal lives that also need addressing.
Taking courageous decisions requires energy. That’s why, if you’ve managed to have a break over Christmas, you should be better placed to confront those challenges.
It also means we have to be honest with ourselves and act as soon as we can when we know we need to, rather than putting things off.
Support from peers, friends and coaches when making courageous decisions is vital.
Acting within our values
We should be inspired by courageous acts across our sector. Whether it’s the RNLI defending their actions to save the lives of refugees in the face of vocal criticism, or the National Trust resisting hostile opposition to telling broader histories.
We should take strength knowing such courageous acts have paid dividends and strengthened their cause and their organisations.
“Courage calls to courage everywhere,” the suffragist and social campaigner Millicent Fawcett declared.
And if we’re doing the right thing, acting within our values, we should be emboldened to act courageously in 2023.
Matt Hyde is chief executive of the Scout Association