We operate in a world that isn’t linear. Progress is uneven. Change occurs. Constantly.
We depend on imperfect humans on our team to perform for clients, customers, vendors, stakeholders — and each other — in a business world where the ground shifts under our feet regularly. New technologies. New requirements. New rules. New expectations from customers. From employees.
During the day, you seem to have multiple moments of truth. A big decision. A new initiative. A development that you didn’t see coming. A conflict between your employees.
And then you look in the mirror and see an imperfect leader staring back at you.
C’est la vie.
Once you embrace the fact that courage is a necessary component of leadership, it gives you the perspective to handle the situations that come flying at you each day.
If you thought your job title would protect you from uncertainty, pressure and unpleasant surprises, you’ve probably realized the opposite is true. The more responsibility you have as a leader, the more you become a magnet for those things.
As a leader, you can’t hide. You need to act. You have to move. Forward.
But you can’t rush into every burning building with a foolish disregard for the elements.
Good leaders exercise courage. Daily. It is an inescapable quality of successfully leading others to complete tasks and achieve goals.
It is a combination of mindset, modeling and a willingness to get uncomfortable. Frequently.
The Heart of the Matter
As a leader you will face uncertainty and there will be times when you don’t have the answer. Or a plan.
Or a clue.
Likewise, fear is a natural human feeling. Fear leads to a variety of reactions that can cause leaders — and the teams they lead — to fail.
Fight or flight is a natural human response to perceived danger. So is freeze. Fear can paralyze people from taking necessary action. Fear can prevent necessary conversations from taking place.
Merriam-Webster defines courage as: mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.
Being courageous doesn’t mean that you don’t experience fear. It means that despite the sense of fear, you lean into it and take action anyway.
Nelson Mandela said, “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.”
The word “courage” comes from the Latin word “cor” — the heart.
When your brain senses risk, do you rely on your heart to cause you to lift your hand, move your feet or raise your voice?
Such actions aren’t often expected. They aren’t commonplace.
But leaders will take action. And motivate others to do the same.
“Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles. Cowardice is submissive surrender to circumstances. Courage breeds creativity; Cowardice represses fear and is mastered by it. Cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
Too many people live their lives based on being safe, being politic (or sensible under the circumstances), and what is popular. MLK reminds us that it takes courage to do what is right.
Taking action that you know in your head and your heart is right, despite it being potentially unsafe, insensible or unpopular — requires courage.
One Ring to Rule Them, One Ring to Bind Them…
My apologies to J.R.R. Tolkien, but plenty of thought leaders have recognized how courage is one of the most important virtues for our human existence, and particularly for leaders.
The Stoic philosophers, who believed that perception is the basis for true knowledge, identified four virtues: courage, temperance, justice and wisdom. Through popular current figures like Ryan Holiday and Darius Foroux, Stoic philosophy is enjoying a rebirth, particularly among Millennials and Gen Z.
As a core virtue, courage allows leaders to embrace challenges and obstacles.
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” -Marcus Aurelius
Aristotle identified more than a dozen virtues that he considered necessary for a well-lived life. They include such items as Generosity, Ambition, Honesty, Self-Control. He considered Courage the first virtue, because it makes all of the other virtues possible.
“Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.” — C.S. Lewis
Courage is required not just to exhibit the other virtues, but to exhibit them “at their testing point.” When stress occurs, when a decision has to be made, or when others are watching. That is when all the other virtues are tested. Courage is necessary to lean into the discomfort and display the virtue for all the world to see.
“Courage is the main quality of leadership, in my opinion, no matter where it is exercised. Usually it implies some risk — especially in new undertakings. Courage to initiate something and to keep it going, pioneering and adventurous spirit to blaze new ways, often, in our land of opportunity.” — Walt Disney
New initiatives can take energy and focus, but a lot of creative ideas never see the light of day because no on executed. No one took the final step. No one pressed “play.” The doubters, internally and externally, surrounded Walt Disney his entire life. Generations of people all over the world are glad that he believed that courage was a main quality of leadership. He and his organization took the courageous step of moving from “dreamer” to “doer” consistently and effectively.
Bring Your Buckets to Work
In his book, Courage Goes to Work, Bill Treasurer identified three buckets where courage shows up for leaders at work.
- Try Courage
The courage of initiating action to overcome inertia. This requires you to break out of your comfort zone and try something new: a new direction, a new approach, usually something for the first time. People are comfortable doing nothing. As a leader, you need to role model leaning into your discomfort, with all the uncertainties and risk of failure that come with it. It may also be stepping out and volunteering for a leadership role in a project or on a team, even if you don’t feel fully prepared.
- Trust Courage
The courage of letting go of the need to control situations or people. This happens when you delegate a task and trust others to complete the task, even if their approach is different than yours. You run the risk of others not completing the task and it reflecting poorly on you. On the other hand, by extending trust, your vulnerability builds relationships and gives the opportunity for others to grow. This can also show up when you are open to other people’s opinions and accepting of their actions.
- Tell Courage
The courage of telling the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it is for someone else to hear, or if it requires you to admit your mistakes to others. It allows you to speak up when you feel strongly about an issue. It may also require you to apologize when you’ve been wrong or stepped out of line. It can potentially make you unpopular. It is the courage to say what needs to be said, regardless of the circumstances, or the risks associated with speaking up. This may show up with your direct reports — or with your boss.
Time to Step Up… or Step Out
When you display courageous leadership, you need to be prepared to embrace some (potentially) new behaviors:
- Sometimes it means speaking up
It takes courage to say what needs to be said. Sometimes it is uncomfortable or unpopular. Speak so that others understand. Share information. Face facts, deal in reality and treat people like adults. Sometimes it will require initiating difficult conversations. When you are known for telling the truth and for confronting reality, it builds respect in the relationship. Candor avoids misinterpretation and speeds up communication.
- Sometimes it means shutting up
Too many leaders feel uncomfortable asking for help or listening to contrary opinions. Being vulnerable enough to ask for help builds trust. Listening to contrary opinions is a great way to learn — about the other person and possibly about yourself. Some of the most powerful phrases a leader can use are, “I don’t know,” and “what do you think?”
- Let them see your warts
You are a walking collection of imperfections. You’re human. A leadership title doesn’t bestow upon you all the physical, emotional and psychological trappings of leadership. It’s just a title. Let them see the real you. Acknowledge your weaknesses. Your direct reports probably already know what they are. Your courage to be vulnerable builds trust. It creates connection
- Let them tell you about the warts you don’t see
Seek feedback from others. Self-awareness is key to effective leadership. Solicit input on how you are being experienced by others and what they see as your strengths and weaknesses. It may corroborate what you already know, or it may help identify some blind spots. It may not be easy to hear, but assume that perception is reality and treat as constructive input.
- Sometimes you have to let go
Your job as a leader is not to do things is not to do things, but to get things done through other people and to develop them in the process. This requires delegating tasks and responsibilities to others. There is a risk that they won’t do it as well as you and it may impact your performance or your reputation. It takes courage to “let go.” The more frequently and more thoroughly you can delegate tasks, the more time you will have to be strategic and tackle your top priorities.
- Sometimes you have to hold on
When you know that a position you take is the right one, you will have instances when others disagree. You may have no one else supporting your position. One of the heavy burdens of leadership is to do the right thing — consistently. It is part of your brand and your core values that will ultimately attract the right people, and with them, the right behaviors.
There is Something Beautiful on the Other Side
Some of the benefits of creating a courageous culture include:
- Reduces friction — by addressing the elephant in the room, professionally and courageously, allows you to avoid the gossip, backchannel conversations and office politics that can create wear and tear on an organization.
- Reduces time — the ability to address challenges in real time allows organizations to be much more nimble and seize opportunities. When problems are not addressed, they grow and fester, and require much more time to address.
- Builds trust — when employees understand that you will do the right thing and take action when appropriate, it builds trust that someone with the right values and someone willing to lead during difficult times is steering the ship.
- Teaches others how to lead courageously — one of your ongoing responsibilities is to develop other leaders in your organization. When you role model courageous leadership (and you must!), it provides a leadership model for others to follow.
- Builds accountability — if people know that certain behaviors will not be tolerated, no matter how senior the employee — and that includes you — it reinforces a culture of accountability. You should strive for a reputation for you and your team: We do what we say we will do and deal in the currency of truth and honesty. We act with courage, consistent with our values.
- Builds motivation and momentum- when people see courage being demonstrated, reinforced and celebrated, it motivates them to do the same. Small acts of courage by multiple people on a daily basis in an organization is powerful. It is contagious. It can create momentum that can be felt inside and outside the organization. It makes for a team that people want to play on.
Embrace the New Day…Every Day
No matter your level of experience and training, every day brings something new…new challenges…opportunities…requirements…technologies… and new demands on you and your team.
You’re learning as your leading and your team is watching how you handle it all.
Running forward blindly might lead to a brick wall behind that fog in front of you.
Doing nothing might mean you’re left standing in place and the world passes you by.
You need to keep moving forward, even when you don’t have the answers, or the road map.
There are different leadership qualities needed for the journey, but one that may trump all others is courage. Courage gives you the space to exhibit the other values and qualities found in successful leaders.
When you have the courage to lead despite the understanding that you are imperfect, improperly prepared and inadequately informed — and embrace your role — great things can happen.
Bring your three buckets to work every day and you’ll notice the impact.
You build trust.
You and your team learn from your mistakes — and your successes.
Leaders emerge who weren’t leaders yesterday.
You become better prepared for the next crisis. Or opportunity.
You’ll still have days when events frighten you. But not as much as they did the day before. And the kind of event that used to frighten you doesn’t even get your attention now.
You’ll feel the growth. You’ll see the results.
And you’ll keep pushing. One courageous step after another.