The 7 Forms of Courage Every Leader Should Demonstrate

Through years of consulting to many organizations, I’ve been blessed to work with wonderful, accomplished leaders — individuals who are deeply in touch with who they are, and are focused on bringing the best of their skills, talents and passions to leading others. They view leading as both a privilege and a responsibility, one that surpasses any other role they may have in their organization. At the same time, these gifted leaders are strongly committed to the business of growing the business, as they should be. They recognize that being an effective leader while holding a position of excellence in the market are not mutually exclusive objectives.

Conversely, I’ve also met individuals with leadership titles who failed to embrace the most profound aspect of their role — courage to lead well in the face of adversity and ambiguity. I call them “faux leaders”. In nearly every case I’ve witnessed, the behaviors of these leaders had a profoundly negative impact on their teams and their organizations. In some instances, significant business opportunities were lost or left unleveraged. In other cases, the consequences of poor leadership resulted in innocent, well-deserving people losing their jobs or compromising their careers. But in no situation that I observed, was an absence of leadership courage ever benign.

There are seven forms of courage that the “faux leaders” I’ve met have failed to demonstrate:

1. Courage of Ownership

When a leader lacks this form of courage, he or she spends a lot of time talking about what’s not working in the business, or lamenting over how poorly other departments are interfacing with their own. They have a laundry list of injustices that others have inflicted upon them or their team, which they frequently point to as the reason they are not accomplishing as much as they should be. This is the Victim Leader.

2. Courage of Values

In the face of looming margins, quotas and targets, faux leaders succumb to the temptation to compromise their values to meet the numbers. They are unable to demonstrate their convictions when under pressure, so their supposed values don’t match their behaviors. These leaders cut corners, compromise relationships with co-workers, suppliers and customers, and re-write promises to meet the needs of the moment. This is the Malleable-Values Leader.

3. Courage of Grace

Egotism is a proxy for fear in leaders who lack the courage of grace. They conflate the luck of the market with their own contributions; they hold themselves above the rules and measures set for everyone else; and they show a lack of respect for the capabilities of other people and business competitors. Ultimately, they position their organizations for failure because they are unwilling to invite and consider other viewpoints, or change their minds, even in the face of evidence. This is the Arrogant Leader.

4. Courage of Possibility

Without the courage of possibility, faux leaders view their world as place rife with risk and failure. They are paralyzed by the thought of making a wrong choice, so they analyze endlessly, often waiting so long that others forge ahead on the path to success before them. The result is that these leaders are slow adopters of trends, often being the last to capitalize on a positive shift in the market. This is the Risk-Averse Leader.

5. Courage of Perspective

Many companies and industries have suffered from leaders who lacked the courage of perspective. These leaders favor short-term fixes over long-term solutions, and manage with a quarter-to-quarter perspective that makes accomplishing game-changing objectives nearly impossible. Since their vision for the business is so narrow in perspective, their legacy is often an advanced form of malignancy from which the organization struggles to recover. This is the Short-Sighted Leader. (First cousin to the Malleable-Values Leader, noted above.)

6. Courage of Guardianship

Working for someone who lacks the courage of guardianship is a lonely existence. These faux leaders allow others to berate and take advantage of the people on their teams, and rarely come to the team’s defense in a timely manner. When they or their teams make decisions that don’t work out for the best, this leader is the first to shift blame to someone working for them. Their attention is on deflecting responsibility for outcomes, rather than learning from them. This is the Opponent Leader.

7. Courage of Dissension

The desire to be popular can be a slippery slope for leaders who want to make a difference. Those who are unable to demonstrate the courage of dissension tend to seek out compromise at any cost, which means that they arrive at decisions that no one is happy about, but ones which most can live with. As a consequence, their decisions are muted in shades of gray, rather than colored in the vibrant hues of possibility. Because these leaders shy away from difficult conversations and dissenting viewpoints— they rob the business of the very elixir necessary to fuel the healthy conflict that leads to innovation. This is the Conforming Leader.

To determine the forms of courage that you are demonstrating, it takes a strong desire for self-awareness and a willingness to examine your own leadership style. You can begin by reflecting on the recent decisions you’ve made and the route by which you arrived at them. Better yet, ask your team or your colleagues. They’re in the best position to help you gauge how closely your impact matches your intent.

This article was originally published in SmartBrief on Leadership, November 2015.

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