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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

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."

To contemplate:
·         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


  1. Listened to UK's Steve MacDermott's "How to be a Complete and Utter Failure" in the car today - lots of ties to the alignment of courage w/ beliefs, self knowledge, and values. Additional focus goals with purpose and the journey itself, rather than the ending point...courage offers you the journey, and sometimes if you're lucky, the destination!

  2. Hey Liz, sounds like an audio I want to hear, I'll check it out. We better enjoy the journey, it's the living and learning part of it all and we often spend more time 'traveling' than 'arriving'. Also, since we might not reach every destination, we might as well fully enjoy the adventure of the trip.

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  4. Courage for me as a leader was when I had to face a budget deficit which resulted in a mass layoff. Not so much that I had to lay off staff, but in the manner in which I had to do it, which didn't allow for a transition over a period of time. Instead I had to give a two week notice to a variety of positions within my division which account for at least 40% of staff. Overall it was a lesson learned but the biggest lesson was to acknowledge my part of not planning ahead sooner so that the lay-off would not have seemed so devastating to our division. Not to say that those who were part of the lay-off wouldn't have lost their jobs, but it would not have taken place so abruptly.

    The self awareness and self examination convicted me to give explanation as to how we as a division ended up in the predicament and my role played in it, which caused me to find courage in not only accepting responsibility but for also exposing myself to a deficiency coming into this leadership role. I am glad to report that this experience has given me great experience and allowed me to develop tools in which to not have this take place in this manner to date. There have been lay-offs as well as reduction in hours of staff, but it has been done with better advance notice and done to where it has been such a drastic hit as before.

  5. You clearly demonstrated personal and leadership courage Nekeisia. Very enriching for you and your division. Thanks for sharing and wishing you continued development through success and through failure.