What does it mean to be a courageous leader? The word "courage" has mostly military connotations related to heroic acts and dramatic displays of bravery. For the Greek philosophers, courage was one of the cardinal virtues of a human being, and it had two subsets: physical and moral. And it is moral courage that we will focus on in the Key Leadership Attributes context.
Self-reflection: Think about your own definition of courage in day-to-day life. Write down from your personal experience at least three examples that illustrate moral courage.
We all need courage, first of all to live a life worth living. Unfortunately, many people fail to achieve the desired quality of life because they lack the courage to face their own fears. In his seminal volume “Walden”, the American philosopher H. D. Thoreau wrote “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”.
This doesn’t mean that courageous people (including leaders) are not afraid. Everyone is afraid at one time or another. But courage is the determination to continue, to move forward, to go outside our comfort zone and do what needs to be done and what is right, even when we are afraid. The only antidote for fear is courage.
Courage has many faces. It can be developing or changing the organisation’s vision and/or strategy. It can be acting according to your Moral Compass in times of difficulty. Or it can be understanding and admitting one’s own weaknesses and deciding to address them. True leaders need courage in almost every area of their lives, as the essence of leadership is challenging the status quo, championing change and facing the various risks associated with progress.
Leaders need courage to understand themselves, what their personal values are and how they fit with those of their team members and their organisation. It takes courage to determine and accept one’s weaknesses. Self-awareness and deeply held beliefs are essential elements of courage, the very essence of leadership. For leaders to exercise courage, it needs to rely on certain personal qualities of the individual - that are derived from a constant process of self-analysis.
Both at personal and organisational levels, it takes courage to accept the responsibility of the actions taken and their impact in the future. Some of the great leaders made responsibility part their leadership mantra.
Within the organisation, courage in leadership also means defining a direction for the long term and inspiring people to follow you. Due to the stock-market pressure for short-term results, there are many “leaders” who prefer a more cautious approach, who are less willing to take risks and try something new, and who prefer to look into the past to decide where to go next, or go with the crowd.
Courage also comes into play when one's beliefs and attitudes are tested by various challenges. Remaining devoted to your values, beliefs and moral principles is what courage is about. Therefore, courageous leaders must have a clearly articulated belief system that will help them when faced with difficult decisions.
The constant pressure for results faced by some of our coaching clients can sometimes make them doubt their values and beliefs. As coaches, we should be able to support them in having the courage to follow their deeply held personal principles and to hold to these in the face of difficulties.
These types of challenges are not new. In an article about the origins of the the major crisis from 1929-1933 and titled "The Great Crash of 1929" (published in 1954), J.K. Galbraith wrote: “To speak out against madness may be to ruin those who have succumbed to it. So, the wise on Wall Street are nearly always silent”.
Unfortunately, his words are as relevant today as they were decades ago.
I will end this article with a quote on courage by the poet David Whyte:
”To be courageous is not necessarily to go anywhere or do anything except to make conscious those things we already feel deeply, and then to live through the unending vulnerabilities of those consequences.”
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