Saturday, February 5, 2011
Leadership and courage
"Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing." Helen Keller.
Courage is often described as the mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty (Webster). Courage is said to be a quality of spirit that enables you to face danger or pain without showing fear (Princeton). Courage gives rise to images of daring feats of bravery and nerves of steel. We too often think of courage requiring unique heroism or calls to duty on a grand scale, such as in situations of rescue and war. We may think of the political aid jumping in front of her boss during an assassination attempt. Or we remember the teenager who, in an attempt to save a life, jumped after his friend who was trapped underneath the ice. Examples abound of courageous people and their awe-inspiring acts. Personal courage, to me, is taking the initiative in moments that matter, i.e. in moments when your core values are challenged. It’s also doing small things, and those small things can make a huge difference. As Mother Teresa stated throughout her passionate life: “Doing small things with Great Love is what matters”.
I obviously don’t think of courage as a skill but as a state of mind: how you experience certain situations and how you deal with your fears. As Epictetus taught us, we are not disturbed by people or events, but by the view which we take of them. Courage is acting on your values and beliefs. Courage is about making tough choices. Those choices more often than not involve the little things we do, originating in our beliefs. I look at courage as value-based attitude in action.
For the Greek philosophers, courage was one of the cardinal virtues, both physical and moral courage. It is, of course, the moral courage that needs to be addressed in the business context. Leadership requires courage, because it’s not only a difficult but above all a humbling journey. To be an inspiring, influential leader you have to have the courage to be human. To take risks and make mistakes, to amend previously held beliefs where needed, to show your true and total self. Courage can be maintaining an ethical stance in the face of personal risks. It can be about holding to a strategic choice in the face of severe questioning from industry analysts and stakeholders. Courage for a business leader can be confronting employees directly affected by your downsizing decisions and making yourself vulnerable to their criticisms and anger. Courage is caring enough about your values to uphold them in the face of risks.
Self awareness and deeply held beliefs are essential elements of courage. Neither courage nor leadership can be founded on the action of an individual who lacks self-awareness and self examination. I believe, without courage, you go nowhere, accomplish little, and lack meaning. According to C. S. Lewis, the Irish-born British novelist, courage is the primer for any other virtue. I add U.S. senator John McCain’s wisdom on the topic: "Without courage we are corruptible."
· It takes courage to ask: How am I doing as a leader?
The courage to be exposed.
· It takes courage to follow, listen, and take advice, if that’s what’s needed right now.
The courage to let go of the reigns and show yourself fallible or limited.
· It takes courage to influence rather than impress.
The courage to be different, to appear small among inflated egos.
· It takes courage to give all credit for accomplishments to your team.
The courage to not seek fame or show off to stakeholders.
And it takes courage what many people around the world do and live, every day, in big and in small ways, personally and in business. Look around you and be inspired by their being and by their stories. Tell me your story on courage!
"Whether you be man or woman
you will never do anything in this world without courage.
It is the greatest quality of the mind next to honor."
James Allen – British philosophical writer