In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, Rosabeth Moss Kanter looked at the connection between courage and leadership. Her article, “Courage in the C-Suite,” was written for and about high-level leaders in corporations.
I saw, however, a broader application in some of the principles she articulated. Indeed, some of the principles hit home for me.
Leading with Courage
Anyone in a significant place of leadership must be courageous to be an effective leader. Clichés abound about the challenge of leadership: “It’s lonely at the top”; “It’s tough to be in the leader’s shoes”; and “Leaders must make the difficult decisions.” But the reason those clichés exist is because there are elements of truth in all of them. And the common theme evident in each of them is the need for courageous leadership.
Expounding upon the HBR article, let’s look more specifically at four different types of courage all leaders must demonstrate.
Four Aspects of Courageous Leadership
In the last few weeks we’ve heard reports of several child sexual abuse cases. I even wrote a recent article on the issue. While the act of sexual abuse is morally reprehensible itself, additionally disconcerting has been the failure of high-level leaders to respond to the problem. Too many times we were told that leaders knew about the problem, but decided to take the cowardly path and sweep it under the rug.
The first and foremost requisite courage needed for leaders is moral courage, defined simply as “acting on principle.” Leaders lose all of their credibility if they do not demonstrate this courage. Leaders first must do that which is right. Every other act or decision is secondary.
Great leaders must also demonstrate selfless courage. Effective leaders will seek to put employees, the organization, and others before themselves. Their first concern is not their own job security, their paycheck, or their ego. Jim Collins described this type of leader in his recent book, Great by Choice: “They’re ambitious, to be sure, but for a purpose beyond themselves, be it building a great company, changing the world, or achieving some great objective that’s ultimately not about them.”
Great leaders also have intellectual courage. They are not managers who simply respond to orders. They are men and women who challenge conventional wisdom, who think beyond “the way we’ve always done it,” and who set aside time to imagine new possibilities. They are great thinkers who act on their newly found knowledge.
Finally, those who lead with courage have execution courage. These leaders act quickly and decisively. They don’t wait until they get 100 percent of the facts before they take action. They are not reckless or irresponsible; they simply understand that indecisiveness can paralyze and demoralize an organization. Timidity leads to mediocrity.
Good News/Bad News
The bad news is that relatively few leaders demonstrate courageous leadership. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that relatively few leaders demonstrate all four aspects of courageous leadership.
The good news is that much of courageous leadership can be learned. But becoming a courageous leader demands a willingness to put others first, to make tough decisions that are often personally costly, and to have the willingness to take reasonable risks.
Most leaders understand these choices. Fewer are willing to make such choices. But those who do can lead organizations to greater health and, for many, change the world for good.