The Courageous Leader

The Courageous Leader

  • In a nutshell
    • We’re drawn to leaders and organizations that set bold ambitious goals and communicate a clear vision, but we STAY in organizations where our leaders show courage and integrity.
    • Courage isn’t the absence of fear; it is the ability to keep going in the face of fear – to press ahead, knowing there is potential risk.
    • We can show courage by being prepared to ask for help, show vulnerability, raise our hand and speak out when we see something wrong, take risks, and accept responsibility.
    • We need to have the courage to embody our values and demonstrate them in our every day actions.  Our team will follow our example of how to behave, and echo our behaviors.

This is the third in my series of articles exploring Leadership.  Click here for the first – What is Leadership?  or here for the second – Being a Better Leader..

When asked what it takes to be a leader, people will typically highlight vision, strategy, motivation, innovation, and communication, all of which are important, but courage is rarely mentioned.  A quick Google search returns much the same list with, perhaps, empathy and humility thrown in.

The need for courage is one of the most overlooked / least talked about attributes of good leadership.

What does courage mean?

So, what do we mean by courage?  We often think of examples of courage that cause us to feel fear of real physical danger, such as mountain climbing, skydiving, lion taming, or fighting in a war.  While these are all valid, what about the courage to stand up for our, or others’, rights, challenge something we know to be wrong, the fear of being thought foolish, or the fear of making a mistake?

Merriam-Webster defines courage as “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty”, but I find these definitions much more inspiring:

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” – Nelson Mandela

“Courage is the most important of the virtues, because without it, no other virtue can be practiced consistently” – Maya Angelou

“How few there are who have courage enough to own their Faults, or resolution enough to mend them!” – Benjamin Franklin

It is important to recognize that courage isn’t the absence of fear.  Fear is a rational response to potential danger.  Someone who is “fearless” isn’t courageous, though they might be foolhardy! In fact, courage is the ability to keep going in the face of fear – to press ahead, knowing there is potential risk.

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear – Mark Twain

What is courage in a business environment?

Often in business, we think of a courageous leader as one who is bold, setting ambitious goals, taking big risks, and getting big rewards.  This only scrapes the surface of the importance of courage in a business setting.

Each of us, every day, has a chance to show courage by our words and our actions, whether we are leaders or not.  We can do this, for example, by simply being prepared to ask for help, raise our hand when we see something wrong, and accept responsibility for our failures and mistakes.  This sort of behavior is critical to a healthy culture, and without it, a company can suffer greatly in productivity, engagement, and even profitability.

For our teams to be able to exhibit this courage, we need to lead by example, modeling the behaviors we expect. We also need to empower and encourage our team members, giving them the support and confidence for them to demonstrate the same level of courage.  As leaders, we need a strong and diverse team, with each member being comfortable in arguing their point.  This helps us make good decisions and avoid groupthink – where everyone just goes along with what everyone else is saying, even when they know it is wrong.  For more on groupthink and the bystander effect, read this overview of the 1950’s Asch conformity experiments or this Wikipedia article.

How can we show courage in business?

There are many ways we can demonstrate courage in business, including; raising our hand; arguing our point of view; empowering our team; taking risks and accepting responsibility; hiring and developing the best people; training a successor; living our values and showing vulnerability; and being self-aware and emotionally intelligent.  This list is by no means exhaustive, but it does cover some of the fundamental elements of demonstrating courage in business.  Let’s look at these in more detail.

Raising our hand

This is about having the courage to stand up for what we believe to be right.  This can be very challenging, as it sometimes means we will be challenging our peers or our own leader.  It is often easier to just go along with what our leaders tell us to do, but what if we are told to do something that goes against our ethics or company values? It is our duty to raise our hand and push back and, if it is not addressed, to escalate through the appropriate channels.  Examples include:

  • Challenging dishonesty, bias, and prejudice wherever we see it
  • Ensuring that company values and ethics are consistently and reliably upheld by every member of the team
  • Continuing to escalate issues if they are not remediated – for example, in the case of a public health issue with our company products, our failure could lead to others being hurt, or worse.

You can read a great article about “Raise your hand” culture, where Bruce Weinstein interviews KPMG’s CEO Lynne Doughtie on the subject.

Arguing our point of view

It is important that we argue our case, especially to our leadership, and encourage our team to do the same for us.  It can sometimes seem easier to do just do what we have been told, but by not arguing our point, we are doing a disservice to our leader by not giving them alternative perspectives and the opportunity to change their mind.  The decision is ultimately up to them, and we then need to accept and embrace it, but until the point it is decided, we must argue our case.

Empowering our team

This is often one of the harder things for leaders to embrace.  Many of us rose through the ranks and are used to doing things ourselves rather than leading a team that does things.  It can be hard to accept that others will not do the job the same way we would have done, and even more concerning that if they get it wrong, it may have repercussions on us.  But the only way to really build a high performing team is to give them the freedom and responsibility to do their jobs, while providing guidance and boundaries for them, so they know when to escalate issues to us.  This means placing our trust in our team, and giving them the authority to take broad actions without constant consultation.  This is why trust and alignment are so important in teams.

Taking risks and accepting responsibility

As a leader, a key part of our job is making decisions, and whenever we make a decision, we have a risk of getting it wrong.  This can be a little scary, and it can be tempting to escalate every little decision to avoid responsibility (and consequences) if something goes wrong, but that is neither effective nor scalable – taken to the extreme, every decision would be made by the CEO!

For organizations to work effectively, decision making must be distributed across the organization, which is why things like values and strategy are so important.  They provide a framework that helps guide our decision making to support the broader company goals.  It is also critical to know which decisions we can make, and which decisions should be made by our superiors.

Even with these tools to help guide us, we are still at some point going to need to make hard decisions.  We can get advice and input from peers and colleagues but, ultimately, we need to be able to make a decision and stand behind it.  This means also accepting responsibility when it goes wrong.  We need to be able to explain how we came to that decision in a way that others can understand, but it is important that we, ourselves, fully appreciate that it was our decision and therefore our responsibility.  Glenn Llopis covers this well in his Forbes article, Four Reasons Leaders Are Too Afraid Of Making The Wrong Decisions.

Hiring and developing the best people

A critical part of being a leader is hiring, developing, and mentoring a team, and this includes creating new leaders.  Done well, this can create a critical mass of positive culture and empowerment across the organization.  On the surface, it seems obvious that we would want the best people possible for each job, yet it can be all too easy to only hire people that we don’t see as a threat to us, subconsciously (or deliberately) avoiding those who have greater expertise than us in a particular area.  This is especially common in technical roles.

There is a natural tendency to hire people with similar viewpoints to our own, but study after study has shown that diverse groups tend to make better decisions than homogenous groups, as summarized in this article.

It can be comfortable / easy to hire people who agree with our perspectives; it takes courage to actively seek out differing and opposing viewpoints, and let the best ideas win.

Training a successor

Having a strong successor, and grooming them to take our place, is essential.  Ideally, we should be able to take a holiday and know that the organization will keep on running well without us, because we have the right team in place, who know how to operate the organization and make good decisions.

This can be a little unnerving.  If someone else can do my job, haven’t I just worked myself out of a job? This is looking at it backwards.  If we are successful in building a team that is self-sufficient to the point that we are not really needed day-to-day, that actually frees us up for greater responsibilities, and the fact that we have successfully built out that team is a good indicator to our leaders that we are ready for more.  Marshall Goldsmith explains this well in his Harvard Business Review article, Why You Should Choose an Internal Successor.

Living our values and showing vulnerability

It isn’t enough to simply talk about values and tell our team how to behave – we need to have the courage to embody these principles and demonstrate them every day.  Our team will look to us as an example of how to behave, and if they see that we don’t always follow our own rules, they will do the same.

I am a big believer in showing humility and vulnerability – being prepared to admit when you don’t know something, focusing on getting to the best idea regardless of who thought of it, and being prepared to put your own ego aside and focus on the bigger picture.  I also think it is important to be prepared to ask the “stupid” questions (i.e.  the ones that everyone is thinking, but no-one is prepared to ask for fear of looking foolish), admit we don’t know something, always act with integrity and own our mistakes.  We should also model being prepared to ask for help, and standing up for what is right.

Being self-aware and emotionally intelligent

Self-awareness and emotional intelligence are critical in any leadership role.  Being completely honest with ourselves about our strengths and opportunities for improvement is essential for us to be successful.  If we don’t know where we have skill gaps or weaknesses, then we will not be able to work on improving them, or compensate for them.

For example, I have generally not been strong at promotion – marketing myself, my team, and our shared success.  I can do it, but I tend towards looking ahead at the next challenge, rather than taking time to recognize what we have achieved.  This may seem minor or unimportant, but if we want to build a strong sense of purpose and success within our team, it is vital to take the time to celebrate success and recognize our team for their contributions.

Because I know this to be a critical need AND not one of my core strengths, I make it a point to have someone else responsible for that role, whether as an additional aspect of their role, or as a dedicated position.  This allows me to focus on the things where I can best add value, while ensuring that someone is still focused on ensuring that we take the time to promote our team and celebrate the successes we have.  I still play an active role in that celebration and marketing, but the responsibility for making this a continued activity falls to someone that is better suited to it, and we ALL benefit from the outcome.

There are other areas that we cannot delegate, and for those, we must constantly aim to improve ourselves.  I am a big believer in using a coach to get an independent perspective, and ideally getting 360 feedback – preferably anonymously, as people tend to be more honest when they are less concerned about attribution.  This is an excellent way to get a different perspective on our strengths and weaknesses as a leader, and although it can be uncomfortable to realize that others don’t see us the way we see ourselves, it can be the best way to identify and address our weaknesses, which makes us a much stronger leader.

In summary...

Courage is a key attribute of a good leader, yet is often overlooked.  We need to be conscious of our choices, and demonstrate that courage to our teams, so that they can feel comfortable exhibiting the same behaviors, which will help them grow and mature as leaders.

We are drawn to leaders and organizations that set bold ambitious goals and are good at communicating a clear vision, but we STAY in organizations where our leaders show courage and integrity, clearly live their values, and nurture and develop their teams, encouraging people to demonstrate initiative and pursue their passion.  This type of leader makes us feel that we are special, that we belong, that we are safe.  To be this kind of leader, we must have the courage to be the best leader we can be.

Who am I, and why should you care what I think?  Find out more about me here.

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