Courage is a powerful word. You can see why when you look back to its Latin origin, Cor, meaning heart and then consider today’s dictionary definition: mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear or difficulty.
Historically and not so long ago the word courage and courageous was often reserved for describing superheroes, Greek Gods, cartoon characters such as Courage the Cowardly Dog and historical heroes like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, Anne Frank, Amelia Earhart just to name a few.
It certainly wasn’t used to describe executives, leaders, managers, teams or any other members of the office or work culture. In fact, historically leaders were seen and celebrated more for being stoic, powerful and with a more command and control approach. Tell, teach, plan, organize and never let others see your weaknesses, was the way to lead. Oh and keep your feelings and emotions separate from your work, or else you won’t be respected and may come across soft and unprofessional.
The words courage, vulnerability and trust were words used in counselling and psychiatrist offices, not in boardrooms and executive offices.
So what’s changed?
So what’s changed and why are there top selling authors and change makers such as Brené Brown, Simon Sinek, Oprah, Daniel Goleman and Adam Grant talking about courage? Why are there leadership development programs revolved around the idea of courageous leadership and courageous conversations? How does a book called “Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.” become a #1 New York Times best seller?
What has courage got to do with leadership?
Well it turns out that courage has a lot to do with leadership. Or shall I say, leadership has a lot to do with courage.
It turns out that courage may separate out the effective leaders from ineffective leaders and can be the differentiator whether a leader has influence or not over those they lead.
Now let’s unpack this idea about courage and leadership.
First, let’s look at the definition of a leader for a moment: a person who has commanding authority or influence. And a common definition of leadership is : the art of motivating a group of people to act towards achieving a common goal.
Second, let’s go back to the definition of courage again: mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear or difficulty.
Now if we were to have some wordsmith fun and combine the definitions of leader, leadership and courage together in one sentence, I’d come up with something like:
Is this someone you’d like to work with or for? Is this someone you’d go the extra mile for?
With this definition of a great leader, can you begin to see the role that courage plays in leadership? Can you begin to see that it’s not just a component of leadership but it’s perhaps something that is at the core and foundation of what a great leader is?
Courage is at the core and foundation of what a great leader is.
Martin Luther King Jr. says that ‘the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy’. Winston Churchill says that ‘courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen’. Walt Disney says that ‘courage is the main quality of leadership, no matter where it is exercised and usually it implies some risk, especially in new undertakings’. And finally, Simon Sinek says that ‘the courage of leadership is giving others the chance to succeed even though you bear the responsibility for getting things done.
So in today’s modern world of leadership we could start to explore why courage is so important and what it looks like for leaders to be courageous?
These are 7 ways that courage plays an important role in leadership.
I recently asked a female friend and colleague, who is a leader in a male dominated industry, the question, what has courage got to do with leadership? And the first thing she said was that it’s about being honest and brave enough to be upfront and straight with people. She talked about courage allowing you to simply be yourself, warts and all as a strength for the people you lead.
The fastest way to gain influence with others is through trust that’s created with authentic and honest connection with others. Because if people don’t trust you, they won’t listen to you. And it takes courage to be authentic and share your strengths and weaknesses with others, because that involves vulnerability and vulnerability is often uncomfortable. But the more real and authentic you can be, no matter what it is that’s being said, the more trust you can build with others. And the more trust you build, the more influence you can have.
The biggest reason people avoid holding others accountable is because they’re afraid of the outcome and what will happen during the conversation. They’re either afraid of how uncomfortable they will feel, or how the recipient will feel or respond. With courage, you feel that fear but do it anyway because it’s the right thing to do. With courage, more people can hold each other accountable, despite their position or rank in their organization because they’re not afraid to stand up to others or call each other out.
Just like accountability, we often fear conflict with others because it feels uncomfortable and we don’t know how to work our way through it. Conflict can be anything from challenging someone’s idea in a meeting and having productive spirited debate to emotionally charged confrontations and issues between individuals. Either way, conflict is important and necessary in organizations, small or big and learning how to have healthy and productive conflict is the key. With courage, people are more likely to stand up and challenge others, challenge ideas, take responsibility for themselves and engage in necessary conversations to solve problems. Courage grows our capacity for conflict by helping us embrace the fear and discomfort that comes along with it.
Sometimes it’s easier to just go along with things instead of speaking up, even if it’s about something wrong or immoral. But this is how employees and leaders become bystanders and enablers of unacceptable behaviour or activity, and this is when work environments become toxic and employees disengage. Courage gives individuals the strength to speak up about things that aren’t right or should not be tolerated even if it’s uncomfortable to do so. And when people can do that, a safe, open and accepting work culture is created where people want to come to work, they want to engage and they want to show up as their best.
As courage helps to build things like trust, our capacity for conflict and moral strength, collectively through these elements, it helps to form the building blocks for collaboration and teamwork. Because teams won’t work well together and people generally are not willing to collaborate and share with others unless they can trust, feel respected and feel emotionally safe around them.
Risk, whether it’s in business or within teams, is a necessary ingredient for growth, innovation, creativity and success. But it can be a scary thing because of the succeed / fail nature of it. With risk, it wouldn’t be risk without the element of failure. And to risk failure in the pursuit of growth and success involves vulnerability. If a business fails, it’s vulnerable to revenue loss, market value loss, customer loss and so on. If a person fails, they are vulnerable to rejection, humiliation, embarrassment and so on. With courage, businesses and individuals are more willing to fail in the pursuit of success and they’re more willing to try new things because they see their failures in a positive light as learning and growth, as opposed to something negative and permanent.
How people feel at work determines how they’re going to engage at work. Organizations that value courage create work environments where people feel safe, respected and acknowledged. When people feel this, they’re more free to be innovative, to take risks with new ideas, to admit their failings and weaknesses, to motivate others, to engage in spirited debate, to challenge themselves, to challenge others, to hold others accountable and contribute to the collective goals of their organization.
As you can see now, courage is not something outside of or a small component of leadership, it’s the foundation of good leadership and great work cultures. And organizations who embrace and value courage significantly increase their competitive advantage because they value their culture and the people in it above all else. And that in turn is the driver of their sustained and long term success.
Just as Lou Gerstner Jr. from IBM says, ‘culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game. In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value’.
So if you’re a leader and you’re looking to invest in yourself and your team as a way to become great leaders, I would suggest to start with courage and see where it takes you. Because as you can see, when you combine courage, leader and leadership, this is what you get:
“A great leader is someone who has influence and can effectively motivate a group to act towards achieving a common goal because they have mental and moral strength and will persevere and withstand danger despite their fears and the difficulty of the challenge. “
And that is what you can have when you start with courage.