A Key Element of Leadership….Courage

Over the Memorial Day weekend, I started thinking about courage, and the role it plays in leadership. Just for the heck of it, I ran a google search for images related to “leadership competency models” and scrolled through the first 20 or so pages of graphic models, looking to see if “courage” showed up.

It did show up on a few, but very few. Now some will probably remind me that courage is more a quality than a competency, and they might be right (although I do  think the line between all of these definitions blurs tremendously.) Nevertheless, it struck me that there were few “competencies” on any model that a leader could demonstrate without having a healthy dose of courage.

Take, for example, decision-making (which showed up numerous times).  Leadership decision making is never clear-cut.  It is fraught with politics, consequences, and often emotion.  Making a decision on a “reduction in staff” is difficult enough but often complicated by policy, politics and – always – emotion.  How does a leader make a good business decision?  By weighing all of the information, and having the courage to do the right thing.  And I challenge anyone to definitively define “the right thing” in such a situation.

So many times, people aspire to a leadership role without recognizing what that really means.  Years ago, my stepson was contemplating his future in the working world and said he wasn’t interested in a leadership position – he didn’t want the responsibility of managing people.  Today he is on the fast track to senior leadership in a Fortune 100 company.  As I look back on it, he did what many young people don’t do today; he recognized the inherent responsibility and difficulty of the role and realized that either it wasn’t for him, or he wasn’t ready.   With several years of experience behind him, he gained the confidence and courage to take on the role and do exceedingly well.

All too often, I have seen people aspire to the leadership role because of the perceived status, perqs and benefits, with little thought to the responsibility, and become quickly overwhelmed with the magnitude of ambiguity inherent in leading people.  Too many young people are looking for that senior leadership position with only a few years under their belts.

Leadership is a calling, not a job, and like other callings, there is a higher purpose.  You not only take responsibility for your own work, but for the work of others, and for the success (or not) of the team and organization.   It takes courage….

  • To lead.  You will make decisions that others don’t like – it is inevitable.  But that’s what leadership is all about.
  • To be vulnerable.  You may feel that you need to know more than your team, but of course that’s a fallacy.  You can’t and shouldn’t know everything, particularly if you surround yourself with top talent.  You have to have the courage to be open to others’ ideas and experience, and sometimes even to admit being wrong.
  • To be authentic.  Every organization has a “personality“, politics and policies, and a leader has to support and defend the organization.  But at the same time, a leader has to be authentic to their personal values system.   This is a tricky time, because your team will see right through you, if you are not being authentic to who you are.  Your leadership role takes courage to balance supporting the organization, with authentically representing yourself to the team and others.
  • To develop talent.  Today’s business world is overwhelmed with data, workload and opportunity and leaders are often drawn into the day-to-day work.  But the real job of the leader is to develop talent.  This means becoming a teacher, a coach and a mentor which takes time and energy.  Courageous leaders provide real and helpful feedback, define learning paths and shepherd their teams to success.  This is the real job of the leader.
  • To care.  The balancing act of leadership necessitates caring about each member of the team based upon their needs and interests, while at the same time holding them accountable.  Leaders regularly deal out “tough love.”  If they don’t their teams cannot be successful.

Leadership is not about a pay raise, a “manager” title, an office or the ability to sit at the proverbial table.  It is about having the courage to truly lead.

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