Courageous Leadership

Courage. The word evokes fairytales and knights.

But courage is also one of the defining qualities of a leader and we all can and need to be courageous.

As Peter Drucker said:

„In every success story, you will find someone who has made a courageous decision.“

Do we need to be super-heros? No, just be courageous at some core moments of truth. Below are some of the key areas of courage that I recommend to practice.

The courage to accept reality

Leaders need to accept the currently reality as it is. Not a fantasy world. Not how the world or company was ten years ago. It is easy to dream up castles in the sky of what you think reality should look like.

Only leaders who truly accept reality can change things. This is sometimes hard and requires courage as facing reality and sharing the truth has the potential for shock. However, only grounded in reality one has a good basis for action and improvement.

The courage to correct your view

Winston Churchill once said:

„Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” 

Sometimes we need to understand that we were wrong as leaders, instead of clinging to our view or our assessment. I, as many others, had to correct my view regarding the current crisis. Having the courage to correct one’s view in the light of new data and developments is a key task of a leader.

The courage to stay course

At the same time, we also need to be courageous to continue a path even against criticism. We cannot change course every time somebody says something negative.

For that it’s important to know from who we accept criticism and feedback. In general, I have found that listening mostly to the criticism and feedback of people who I would go to to ask for advice is a useful heuristic for separating the signal and the noise in feedback (this is so much more easier said than done especially in times of social media).

The courage to think differently

Once they have accepted reality great leaders then also need to have the courage to bend this reality. To come forward with a bold vision on what could and should be changed. In not accepting the current status quo, change is pushed forward.

This requires a firm grasp of thinking processes and tools. Two things are key: to have a good vision creation process and to be able to think in so-called first principles.

The courage to have productive conflict

You will face conflicts when you lead. Whenever people work together there is a potential for friction. It’s the leader’s role to step in and to engage in that conflict, to try to resolve it and to sometimes push things forward a bit. The worst thing you can do as a leader is to try and make everybody happy and avoid conflict. As an internet meme goes: “If you want to make everybody happy, don’t be a leader, sell ice cream”.

The courage to say “No“

With the above in mind it is important to also say “No“ often. „No“ to ideas, „No“ to requests, „No“ to appointments. As Derek Sivers says, everything we do should be either a “Hell Yeah” or a „No“. We should avoid a half-hearted „Yes“.

However, connected to that courage comes the responsibility to share why you say „No“. Every „No“ should be followed by a “because ________” that shares your reasoning. This is important for the development of the people in your team so that all learn about your leadership style and decision-making process.

The courage to ask

A lot of people just wait and see until opportunities come to them. But we need to have the courage to ask for what we want. We have already a “No” as a default answer from others, so by asking we either stay at that default or we get a change. It might hurt us personally to receive a “No” but it does not really change the situation as it was before.

The courage to develop yourself

In order to do all of the above one has to have very strong self-leadership. To develop this requires the courage to lead oneself, which can often be the hardest task of every leader.

One of my favourite exercise tools: Visualization: Run a scenario of a challenging situation in your mind. Think through and visualize how you would act, how you could be courageous. Run different scenarios in your mind. What would you say? What might be the reaction of others? The more you do this, the more you will be prepared to be courageous also in the real world.

Special times call for courage: BE COURAGEOUS

Some of the above elements contradict each other. Some require you to balance different views at the same time, like the person in the top image of the post. This is because life is complex and at times contradicting. Courageously accepting this and addressing situations as they unfold is key.

Courage is a quality that can be trained and developed. I recommend to be courageous in one small area of life every day to train the courage muscle.

Invest the time to be a courageous leader, as the world needs them.

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