Courage in Leadership

3 December, 2020

Having the uncomfortable conversation, making the difficult choice, navigating unknown waters, implementing decisions in fluid situations, acting counterintuitively … doing the right thing at the right time for the right reason. These all take courage.

Most people in their lives will face versions of these situations. When leaders deal with these situations in their professional lives they’re often doing so on behalf of many other people, with the consequences potentially impacting exponentially more.

What is courage?

Courage isn’t fearlessness. Nor is it reckless.  While neuroscience research shows that some people do have a thrill-seeking or “Type T” personality which inclines them to be bolder and more adventurous, Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries ,Distinguished Clinical Professor of Leadership Development and Organizational Change at INSEAD, says this doesn’t mean that people who may be more “genetically predisposed than others to have a greater capacity for risk-taking …will necessarily show more courage.”  

So where does courage lie? It’s somewhere between cowardice and recklessness. It is a “well-considered, wise, and brave decision to behave constructively despite the fear, discomfort, or temptation. It is the discipline to act on wisely-chosen values rather than an impulse.”

Courage is understanding the danger of the situation and choosing to act according to your values, despite the fear. Nelson Mandela described courage as “not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” Aristotle believed that the epitome of courage is facing noble death at the hands of the enemy during an offensive attack in a just war for the people. Or, as Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird described it, real courage is “when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what”. Regardless of the outcomes, you act in a way that reflects your values.

Courage can be physical, manifested as valour and bravery.  It can be endurance, its hallmarks perseverance, industry or diligence. And it can be moral courage, expressed as integrity and honesty. Of course, these aren’t mutually exclusive.  For leaders like the late Representative John Lewis “courage defined his life — moral courage to identify wrongs and denounce them and physical courage to endure attacks at sit-ins and incarceration.”

“It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.”

Mark Twain

Kets de Vries, in this article on finding and practicing courage, suggests that “perhaps the best way to think of courage is to treat it as a muscle. Some people are born with better muscles than others, but everyone can improve their muscles through training and practice.”  In this he echoes Aristotle who said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”  Practical wisdom, as he conceived of it, is acquired through daily practice. 

Courage in leadership

Leadership requires courage. There will be unknown challenges, like a pandemic, which were never included in scenario planning exercises, or included in extensive risk-management practices.  Leaders who’ve done the hard preparatory work, interrogated their own moral agency and built a strong ethical framework are in a strong position to meet crises head-on. They’re not relying on gut-feel, or fake it ‘til you make it.  Their decision-making capacity offers them clarity and courage. They won’t always be right, they will have to be agile and prepared to change rapidly, but they will be working from a fundamental foundation upon which to build their recovery. There are also the known challenges – corruption, toxic corporate cultures, technically legal but unethical practices, systemic bias – which require courage to confront.

 “A lot of the times positive change derives from someone being courageous, and it can be someone fighting for something you believe in, it could be standing up for someone, speaking up, daring to do things differently, to break the norm,” says Lisa Laskaridis, Head of Communications at UN75. “I believe in courage as a driving force, as a means to better ourselves and as an agent for positive change…When we act with courage it can have a great impact on our lives and others. I believe every little action in a common day makes or unmakes character and that we’re built of everything we do.  When we’re brave enough to venture out of our comfort zones that’s when the amazing stuff happens and I think life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”

Cranlana’s purpose is to strengthen wise and courageous leadership. We don’t teach leadership skills. Instead, we help leaders apply the skills they already have more wisely – by building clarity of purpose and ethical courage. We help leaders get comfortable with discomfort, and find the courage to lead. So the amazing stiff can happen.

Harvard Business Review, Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, 12 May 2020. Read the full article here.

What Do You Believe, Andréa Marcucci, 2020. Listen to the podcast episode here

Cranlana Centre for Ethical Leadership’s programs include the 2 day Executive Ethics, 6 day Executive Colloquium and year-long Vincent Fairfax Fellowship. We also deliver online and tailored corporate programs. Find the right program for you. They are all held under the Chatham House Rule to encourage genuine and open debate, and allow participants to candidly discuss sometimes sensitive issues in private while allowing the topic and nature of the debate to be made public, and contribute to a broader conversation. The alumni program offers ongoing leadership development support and a lifelong connection with Cranlana.

Photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash