The Courage to Lead

You can find lots of articles on leadership that talk about the characteristics required to lead. I’ve written several myself. The two I most often write about are integrity and judgment. Asking which one is more important is a lot like asking which came first the chicken or the egg.

I personally think much of the poor judgment we see and hear about stems from a lack of integrity. People try to hide their lack of integrity and make very poor judgments in the attempt. Rather than be honest about a potential skill gap they try hiding it and once again, that attempt to deceive causes a ton of poor judgment.

Whatever leadership characteristic you think is most important I believe there is one characteristic that all effective leaders possess. That characteristic is courage.

Leading is hard. It’s hard because leadership is about people. You can manage stuff but people must be led. People, all people, are emotional. They have hopes, dreams, challenges, and worries.

If you’re leading them, truly leading, you’re dealing with your emotions, your dreams, your challenges, and your worries, PLUS theirs. That is not easy.

Sometimes conflicts will arise. Authentic Leaders have the courage to confront those conflicts head on. Authentic Servant Leaders have the courage to confront those conflicts head on with a healthy dose of compassion added in.

One of the most serious failings I see from people in leadership positions is lacking the courage to deal with conflicts or even potential conflicts. They will go to great lengths to ignore the situation. They will tell themselves that time will “fix” the problem. They will tell themselves and sometimes other people that “they aren’t baby sitters” and people just have to work these things out on their own. That’s NOT leading.

Making decisions is another area that often requires courageous leadership. When a person in a leadership decision lacks courage they often simply don’t make the decisions required of a leader. What they fail to realize is that not making a decision IS a decision and it’s very often a wrong decision.

Sometimes people in leadership positions lack the courage to say no. When asked for something they know isn’t possible they answer with a “we’ll see” or a “let me think about it.” They know that “no” will be an unpopular answer and they lack the courage to make unpopular decisions. That’s NOT leading either.

Some days leading requires a huge amount of courage. Some days not so much. But courage is a constant in all Authentic Leaders. Possessing the courage to lead is a leadership characteristic not considered often enough. But I’d put it in my top three most important characteristics for a leader.

What about you…do you believe a leader should possess courage?

18 thoughts on “The Courage to Lead

  1. Yes, courage is a prerequisite for effective leadership. So is confidence. Several others? Perseverance, patience, energy, commitment, discipline, empathy, and vision. We could elaborate on any of these. For now, I will leave that to you and others.

  2. Steve,
    What if your in a position were no is the right answer, but that is not an answer you can give because it is unacceptable because you are a can do department and get things done, regardless of your courage to give that answer of no.

    1. I think in that situation I wouldn’t say what I couldn’t do. Just skip the no part and only talk about what can happen and what should happen. It’s a positive “no” and is much better received than just a no. Also, there is no need in that situation to tell someone they are wrong. Simply ask “have you considered this option….” If they are at all open minded you will have surfaced the short comings of their thinking for them.

  3. This is a great commentary on leadership. Coupled with this quote from something I read earlier today from Dan Rockwell – “Kind impatience takes you farther than comfortable inaction” gives some great pillars for leadership.

  4. NO question that courage is a critical requirement. However, i would put the ability to put together the right team to be the most critical component of any leadership position. You can be courageous and say no when it needs to be said, but unless you have the right team it will always still be an uphill battle. Bottom line, i think we will agree that it is a combination of traits that are required, with emphasis on which one is most critical dependent on the specific circumstances of the company and market they deal in.

  5. United States President Harry Truman had a sign on his desk. “The buck stops here.” This requires courage, leadership, and a great sense of responsibility for all decisions made. General Douglas MacArthur discovered this when he was fired by President Truman — an unpopular and shocking decision yet well within the scope of his authority.

  6. While I agree whole heartedly with your article there are times when I don’t make a haste “no” reply. Sometimes they know the answer as well and k ow I do to. I will from time to time tell them I will think about it and get back knowing that they what me to make the decision for them. Many times when I approach them to give them the no answer they say it before I get it out. I do ALWAYS follow up and do what I say.

    1. Delaying a No so others can figure “no” is the right answer on their own is a sound coaching strategy. Just be sure that’s your reasoning behind it. I’ve misled myself in that way too many times.

  7. Harry Truman also said, “They called me Give them Hell, Harry. I never gave anybody hell. I just told them the truth and they thought it was hell.” Great article, Steve. We need a lot more courage in the profession and fewer mice protecting their piece of cheese!

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