5 Characteristics of Globally Resilient Leaders: Pragmatic Fearlessness

Jun 27, 2023. By Lori Brewer Collins

Shanghai Bullet Train by Brandon Hoover

There is the “fearless leader”. The brave one who stands apart from others. The one made of steel who appears to be totally without fear in the middle of chaos. The leader who, when things could blow up in their face at any moment, confidently tries new approaches or solutions and courageously takes uncalculated risks.

And then there is the “pragmatically fearless leader”. The one who balances bravery with practicality. The one who knows when they need advice or help and who seeks it out. The leader who has fears—and lets people see how they face them. The one who takes calculated risks to solve difficult problems, seize new opportunities and achieve challenging goals.

A leader who practices “pragmatic fearlessness” is neither comfortable with nor energized by everything that is new and different in their environment. Instead, they intentionally develop the ability to cope with stress and ambiguity, especially when living, travelling and working internationally. They use their relentless curiosity to appropriate “cultural street smarts”. This helps them grasp the complexity and uncertainty in unfamiliar situations and discern when, where, and in what ways it makes sense to be fearless.

What Pragmatic Fearlessness Looks Like

Dirk loves taking risks—but he has learned that the same problem-solving and communication skills don’t work in all situations.

When he first arrived in Taiwan, Dirk leapt into action. Comfortable with discomfort, he sought out high-contact experiences. Even though he was considered to be outspoken in his native country of the Netherlands, he stepped blindly into all kinds of situations, assuming his good intentions would somehow be protected from possible negative consequences. After all, he was just trying to learn more about Chinese belief systems and indigenous Taiwanese culture so that he could better understand his work colleagues!

However, this area of the world, like many, operates in non-Western ways with entirely different operating protocols and behavioral standards. Over-confidence led Dirk to get burned more than once by his directness and cultural blind spots. Several decisions he made, decisions that seemed reasonable from the perspective of the Dutch culture he grew up in, blew up in his face. Fortunately, his naïveté didn’t do too much damage.

He wisely and quickly began tempering his natural fearlessness and self-confidence with humility and curiosity. It has taken him a couple of years of listening to learn about the Taiwanese, but now he can sense what will and will not work in his current context. He is sensitive enough to look for signals in people’s responses and familiar enough with their underlying beliefs and attitudes to know what those signals mean. He now has the wherewithal to know when to ask for advice, find a guide, or say “no” to an enticing possibility. And he can discern what is and isn’t “safe” and “acceptable” before he introduces new ideas, approaches, and ways of doing things.

5 Ways to Cultivate Pragmatic Fearlessness

As a global leader, you may feel as if you’re facing your fears all the time. Here are a few ways you can proactively—and without the pressures of your job—expand your capacity for a fearlessness grounded in practicality.

  1. Challenge yourself to learn something in public. Experience what it feels like to have to publicly follow guidance when you are not sure what to do. Perhaps even make yourself do something you’re not good at in front of an audience. Risk looking incompetent: you might discover that you have more talent than you thought.
  2. Throw yourself into an activity about which you know nothing. Experience what it feels like to rely on others.
  3. Drive to an unfamiliar part of a city—one that you know is “safe” for foreigners—without a map or a GPS. Observe how well you navigate from point A to point B. If you get twisted around, stop to ask for directions. Pay attention to your own level of comfort or discomfort throughout.
  4. Take on a role in a social situation that deliberately challenges you to get outside of your behavioural comfort zone. Volunteer to do something you’ve never done before. Pay attention to feelings in your body of anxiety or irritation. Articulate them and look at what lies underneath those feelings, in particular the beliefs and stories you have about yourself and others. Find ways to challenge those beliefs or put aside the stories in a way that allows you to be with the feelings and move through the situation with more ease.
  5. Ask someone you trust from within the new culture where you’re living (or someone who is more experienced and comfortable working within that culture) to be your guide in learning and adapting to something you find “foreign” and difficult to understand or accept.


Photo Credit: Brandon Hoover, “Shanghai Bullet Train”

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