The Courage to Lead

courage to leadCourage is a trait possessed by all great leaders. So much so, that without courage, leadership is a farce at best.

Please understand that I’m not just talking about the kind of courage we see on television or in the movies (think John Wayne), nor am I advocating for the bravado or arrogance many associate with “leadership”, instead, I’m speaking to the courage necessary to stay the course and to do the right things. Standing behind decisions that are popular doesn’t particularly require a lot of intestinal fortitude. On the other hand, standing behind what one believes is the right decision in the face of tremendous controversy is the stuff great leaders are made of. If I’m not mistaken, I believe it was Aristotle who referred to courage as the first virtue, because it makes all of the other virtues possible.

It takes courage to be different, to go against the grain, challenge the status quo, seek new opportunities, cut your losses, make the tough decision, listen rather than speak, admit your faults, forgive the faults of others, not allow failure to be the end, stand for those not capable of standing for themselves, and to remain true to your core values. A leader can do none of these things without courage. Courage truly is the driver behind the strength of conviction to do the right thing when it would just be easier to do things right.

The best thing about courage is that it can be learned and developed. Courage is teachable and therefore it is learnable – proof of this can be found in every instance that you have chosen to take a step despite the fear of where your foot might land.  Not being fearful (lacking fear) is often times a sign of ignorance or naivety and like my seven year-old has learned, can lead to pretty significant trouble.  Courage is finding the strength to move ahead despite that 12 pound Gordian knot in your gut (also known as fear).  In short, courage isn’t a skill, it is a decision.

We will all be remembered for the decisions we make or don’t make, and the courage we display or that we fail to exercise. Leaders who consistently demonstrate courage will stand apart from the masses, and earn the trust and loyalty of those whom they lead.  Typical examples might be:

  • In the military great courage is often referred to as heroism, while a lack of courage will brand you a coward.  Heroism is great, but real courage however is the junior officer or non-commissioned officer who tell the commanding officer that his or her heroics will only get them all killed.
  • On the political stage those who we deem as working from principle and display the courage to stand on that principle regardless of outcome, are statesmen, and those who don’t, are opportunistic politicians.
  • In the corporate world we see courage in innovators and opinion leaders, those who display a lack of courage are viewed as “yes men” who are the politically correct defenders of whatever is popular with the top executives.

While the need for leadership courage is fairly obvious to most, the real need lies much deeper, just beyond the level of consciousness.  Leaders are followed for three primary reasons, first because others trust them, secondly because leaders demonstrate a kind of confidence that inspires others and lastly, because like confidence, followers often times seek from a leader that which they don’t have personally.  A follower might not be the first to step off, but is willing to be the second.  The follower likely still doesn’t know what comes after that step, but the fact that the leader took it, the follower now knows she won’t be alone and thus have enough courage herself to take that step.

Each day brings with it all sorts of challenges, and some might say that the best any of us can hope for is that we will have the courage to stand behind our personal beliefs and convictions regardless of public opinion or outcome. I say that hope is not a strategy, real courage is putting a stake in the ground and saying “I will, not I hope”.  Courage is not fleeting, it’s not a talent or strength, it’s a choice.  It’s really is pretty simple, just not always easy!  If it was, would we need courage?

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