The Courage to Lead

May 30, 2019

The Courage to Lead

Drawing on his decades of leadership experience, author Bill Treasurer puts forth that courage is the differentiator for successful leaders and the catalyst for organizational changes. 

What is the state of leadership today? How has it grown and changed?
According to a survey by the World Economic Forum, 86 percent of respondents believe the world is in a leadership “crisis.” While I’m more optimistic, clearly people are feeling unnerved by what they’ve witnessed in the last few years relative to world leadership. Leaders everywhere seem to be letting us down, be they corporate, military, sports, or even religious leaders. 
Having researched many leadership fails over the last few years, the one commonality that comes into stark focus is arrogance. There’s a point at which confidence can slip over into arrogance, and when that happens, danger awaits.

The good news is, there’s a vibrant energy among the mighty young people of the world who have grown impatient with, and intolerant of, the smarmy ways of leading that accompany arrogant leaders. Millennials are moving into management roles, and Generation Z is starting to graduate from college. These are the folks who have been at the forefront of sea changes that are going on in the current cultural zeitgeist. They’re full of courage and moxie!
How did you determine that courage was the starting point for successful leaders and transformational change?
Aristotle called courage the first virtue, because it makes all the other virtues possible. One day as I was reflecting on that, and I thought, “If courage is the first virtue of life, why wouldn’t it also be the first virtue of leadership and business?” I’ve had hundreds of discussions around that idea since, and the idea holds up to scrutiny, to the point that I can say with confidence that courage IS the first virtue of leadership.
To be a leader means to render bold decisions that often provoke resistance. To be a leader means to elevate people to higher standards, which often involves moving them into discomfort. To be a leader means to relentlessly pursue improvements in efficiency, profitability, and production, which requires people’s passion and engagement. To be a leader means to value and promote behavior that is creative, innovative, and entrepreneurial, which in turn, requires people to make mistakes. 
What are the different types of courage and where are they needed?
Courage can be an intimidating concept, because we often equate it with bravery and heroism. Courage is not just reserved for heroes. You’re courageous if you ever took on a role that eclipsed your skills, or gave a presentation to your boss’s boss, or asked for a raise, or confronted a workplace bully, or stopped a production line because you saw a safety protocol being violated.
There are four different types of courage:
TRY Courage is the courage of action and initiative. It involves taking a leap before the net underneath you is fully built. It’s the courage to attempt something for the very first time.
TRUST Courage involves releasing one’s need to control or be perfect. Let’s be clear: trust is essential for healthy relationships between the leader and the team. But getting to trust takes courage because it involves vulnerability, which is especially hard for those who try to portray invulnerability. TRUST Courage is what’s needed to build strong bonds of interpersonal relationships. 
TELL Courage is the type of courage that most often comes to mind when we think about what it means to be courageous at work. It is the courage it takes to speak honestly, and not bite your tongue to “go along and get along.” It’s the courage it takes to assert one’s true viewpoint, even if it runs counter to the boss’s or team’s popular opinion. It’s worth noting that honesty is the number one attribute people look for in a leader, and that connects directly to TELL Courage.
TAKE-IN Courage involves being able to receive feedback and information about yourself without feeling threatened. It takes courage to embrace one’s imperfections and blemishes, but doing so ultimately makes you stronger. This is the courage of self-evaluation and reflection. It’s the courage to look at yourself as you truly are, and own it.
How can leaders and companies develop the skill of courage?
The first way is to start talking about it. Cultures and people change through story and conversation. Start by having simple conversations with people. It’s helpful to have such conversations in informal settings, like over lunch. Ask things like:

  • What are some things that are going on in our business or industry right now that you think will require courage to navigate?
  • If each person in our organization showed up to work each day with just a little more courage, how might that benefit the company?
  • What are some ways you could be more courageous in your current role?

Second, weave the expectation for courageous behavior into your goal-setting and review process. Explicitly tell people that you expect them to be courageous in their roles, and that means being willing to stretch themselves, assert their true opinions, and sometimes even push back on you.
Third, as a leader, you’ve got to create psychological safety if you want people to tiptoe out toward the skinny branches and take more risk. How you handle (or mishandle) mistakes will go a long way to making people feel safe or not safe. Have some toleration for mistake-making and share with people your view of what a smart mistake is.
How do leaders combat fear in themselves and in their workers?
It will be hard for you as a leader to inspire courage in others if you’re a big fraidy-cat. You need to jump first, meaning you need to be the first one up and off whatever high-dive platform you’re asking people to leap from. 
I’m not big on fear reduction. Fear can be useful. It’s mother nature’s way of protecting us from harm and danger, yet past a certain point fear is paralyzing and stunts development. What matters more than reducing your fear is increasing your confidence. There’s a psychological term for this idea: a “protective frame.” People can withstand intense feelings of fear if they’ve got a strong inner constitution that contains the fear. So long as your fear is caged in a strong protective frame, like a tiger in a cage at the zoo, it won’t do much harm and may do some good (in the form of adding some excitement to the challenge). Spend a lot more time taking action to build your confidence than to reduce your fear.
How will companies and leaders know they are being courageous enough? Can the envelope be pushed too far?
You’ll know when courage is having a transformative impact when everyone acts with transparency and accountability instead of blame-shifting, when people instigate and embrace change instead of resist it, and when everyone works with confidence and backbone instead of fear and anxiety. You know courage is working when people feel inspired by a big and worthy mission, people are contributing novel ideas for overcoming challenges and creating new revenue streams, people are extending themselves and volunteering to take on tough tasks, and people are holding you, the leaders, accountable without fear of reprisal.
It’s important to remember that courage isn’t always a “yes!” Sometimes courage comes in the form of a disciplined “no!” Shutting down a failing plant instead of plowing more money into it, takes a courageous “no.” Or firing a lucrative but unethical client. Or firing a star employee who fails to uphold the company’s values.
What do the leaders of tomorrow need to know to succeed in the coming years?
Always remember that leadership is a privilege, not a right or entitlement. Leadership is not about the leader. It’s about those being led. If a leader is preoccupied with amassing more power or wealth or territory, they’re bound to do damage to the people they’re charged with leading. Few things are as dangerous as arrogant, ego-based leadership.

What leaders of tomorrow need to know is that HUMILITY is essential to leadership. You came from the very people you’re leading today. And you need them more than they need you. With humility, seek their input, ideas, and contributions. The more successful they are, the more successful you will be. Your success will be judged against the results you got on their behalf. 

The Authors: 

Bill Treasurer is the author of several books on leadership: Leaders Open Doors, A Leadership Kick in the Ass, and The Leadership Killer: Reclaiming Humility in an Age of Arrogance. His book Courage Goes to Work is marking its 10th anniversary with an expanded edition.