Leadership Backpack: Building Courage to Be and Act
What is it that makes leaders act courageously? And what’s the role of courage in leadership? For the many years that we’ve worked with leadership and management teams we’ve seen that in the absence of courage, effective and inspired leadership is nearly impossible.
We’ve seen how training for specific leadership skills does not guarantee meaningful results in leading people. It takes more than communication, strategic vision, business, emotional and cultural intelligence to decide what kind of leader we want to be, and to dare act like the leader that resides at the center of our potential.
Courage is the foundation upon which we develop as leaders, it’s the underlying theme for so many of the current challenges we face.
What Makes Leaders Act Courageously?
Some of the best-known examples of our culture like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and Bill Gates dedicated their lives to a mission bigger than themselves, to what they believed would serve the world and act as a catalyst to many of the transformations needed in our society.
In the stories of people who risked their lives to save other people, when asked why they did it there is a common answer, and that is the people they saved also had their backs and would have done the same for them.
Whether it’s in the military, in families or communities, there is this notion that people will tap into unimaginable courage for something or someone that means the world to them. It is clear that we stretch into our strongest and bravest self in the service of others.
What is sometimes missing, is a deeper understanding of courage in the organizational context. What isn’t so clear is what exactly drives us to courage. Leadership has been extensively studied and researched, however, the role of courage in leadership is still a territory that needs further exploration and investigation. A qualitative study involving leaders in Mauritius shed some useful insights that we’d like to share.
What is the Role of Courage in Leadership?
Leading an organization, therefore a group of people means that more often than not, we will be placed in situations where difficult decisions need to be made, these decisions entail a certain amount of risk, and therefore the possibility of failure or injustice is a constant reality.
To those of us, whose leadership style is aligned with our deepest held values, courage serves as an anchor for our commitment to the team, to the values and principles. It is in the thousands of decisions that we continuously make that we use courage to show through our behavior that what is ultimately more significant to us is our people, our values, and our shared mission.
Whether it’s firing someone or transitioning into another role, launching a project that will consume considerable resources, deciding on the right timing to market a new product, or taking a company public, however small or big the choice is, where fear exists, courage can enter and help us decide in a way that is congruent with what matters most.
And let’s not limit courage to grand gestures and heroic acts, the Latin root of the word courage is cor - which means heart. One of the earliest understandings of the word courage was "to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart."
In the organizational context and in this age of uncertainty and constant change, we need a heaping daily dose of courage to:
- Question what we know to be true,
- Question the organizational rules, habits, and standards,
- Listen more than we speak,
- Speak and act out of our truth and values.
- To understand our fears, and wounds so that they don’t take charge,
- To say no, I don’t know, and I’m sorry, I’ll make amends,
- To deliver bad news,
- To consider opposing perspectives and to face our critics,
- To question our part in the problem,
- To lead by example,
- To be and act our best.
The Courage Manifestation Cycle
How do leaders experience courage or lack of courage in important decision-making moments?
The study with leaders in Mauritius gave us a framework to understand the courage manifestation cycle. It states that courage has four stages: first, the Trigger Stage, followed by the Barrier Stage, the Thoughts & Actions Stage and finally the Ending Stage. Each stage actively feeding the next. And each experience building our ability to manifest courage onto the next experience, leading us to a Courageous Leader’s Journey.
The trigger stage is a situation in which a difficult decision is to be made, and it usually arises out of changes such as taking on new responsibilities, instability, and conflicts such as opposing views between the CEO and the operational manager, personal challenges like a divorce or a health situation, or environmental influences in which the challenge is found in the broader context as in a toxic work environment.
In whatever case, the person realizes that a decision must be made that requires courage, and that will be faced with some sort of obstacle, or barrier. The barrier can be internal, like discomfort, anxiety, and fear, it can be a personality tendency that makes it hard to face a conflict, it can be a conflict between organizational and personal values, it can be external like pressure from the immediate peer group, lack of support from family, or it can be systemic where the factor inhibiting courage might come from the organization itself and its resistance towards digital innovation, for example.
In the thoughts and actions stage, people rely on a variety of leadership skills from communication to formal authority to capacity to be flexible, as well as the ability to think in terms of solutions to come up with a courageous course of action. And finally, the ending stage is about the outcomes or results of the courageous act.
When faced with an obstacle that lends some level of difficulty to the decision, what is it that facilitates the manifestation of courage in leadership? When the leaders in the Mauritius study described their stories of courage, some recurring themes emerged, referred to as courage drivers, these were the things that moved leaders from one stage to the next.
Here is the list of the courage drivers found in that study:
-Ownership & independency,
-Perseverance & focus,
-Internal Disposition enablers (values & beliefs, prior experience, self-consciousness, spirituality, calculated risk-taking, positive & forward looking, emotional balance and control).
What can we take away from this? That each of us is on its own Courageous Leader’s Journey, constantly situated somewhere along the courage manifestation cycle and that the extent to which we’re connected to our courage drivers will determine if we move on the next stage or if we get stuck.
That courage fundamentally acts as an anchor to our commitment to what matters most, and that if we’re to lead in a way that's meaningful and leads us forward into a better Future...courage has a fundamental role, because the journey will be challenging, and we will have to choose again and again what and who we stand for.
Nuckchady, G. (2015). Courage in Leadership - A Narrative Study. Retrieved here.