Leadership and Courage

The Courage to Lead: Having the Guts to Do What Needs to Be Done

I travel all over the nation teaching leadership development, but I learn a ton by being involved in fascinating conversations about the qualities of an exceptional leader. One of the topics we often discuss is leadership courage. To my surprise, many people in class tell me they report to leaders who don’t make decisions, don’t like conflict, and don’t seem to have spines. In short, they just aren’t leading. Oh boy.

I often wonder why people in leadership roles lack courage: the courage to lead; the courage to be honest; the courage to tell people not what they want to hear but what they should hear; the courage to take action when it’s needed and cut losses when they need to be cut; the courage to hold people, teams, and organizations accountable; the courage to look people in the eye and fire them; the courage to grab the bull by its proverbial horns.

Why don’t they have the courage? I think there are several reasons:

Companies promote people for technical competency.

Jill is a great salesperson, so the company promotes her to sales manager.  There is a problem though; just because Jill is a great salesperson doesn’t mean she can be a great leader. They assume she will just be a great leader.

The problem is that Jill hasn’t been taught how to be a great leader. She reads what she can and sometimes emulates people she has reported to in the past. She feels uncomfortable and awkward with some of her new responsibilities. I have people tell me in class all the time that they would like to coach their team members, but they “don’t know how.” So, they just don’t do it.

Many people don’t like conflict. 

People in leadership roles have to coach, reprimand, and, yes, sometimes even fire people. They tell me in class that they     “don’t like conflict.”They try at every turn to avoid it.Wouldn’t you love to report to that leader? (Oh, wait: maybe you do!) But being a leader means being right in the mix when there are problems and conflicts. It’s called leading.

Leaders have to learn communication skills and become conflict resolution experts. They need to know how to handle conflict confidently and without hesitation. I know I judge my leaders’ competence by how well they handle difficult situations. If we place people in leadership roles who are conflict avoiders, we open the door to disaster.

Reward courage. 

Too many organizations don’t give leaders enough experience handling adverse situations and challenges. The skills learned while handling conflict and difficult situations aid in a leader’s maturation. Unfortunately, there are too many layers of approvals and permission required in a bureaucracy to allow for such growth. Consider the bank vice presidents I have dealt with who can’t make any decision because it is made by a computer.

Courage and confidence are developed by doing and sometimes failing and sometimes succeeding. Many organizations don’t reward people for acting courageously.  Does such a supervisor get rewarded for making a tough decision or smacked on the hand?

Organizations don’t encourage conflict. 

Many organizations don’t encourage constructive conflict. They practice a sort of passive-aggressive approach to conflict wherein there is no such thing as “good” conflict.  Let’s whitewash a problem and pretend it doesn’t exist. I have worked as a trainer and consultant with groups that didn’t want to look at the “elephant in the room.” I would point out it was sitting in the middle of the meeting room, but they didn’t want to see it. The view was just too unpleasant.

Courage is not developed as a core competency.

Has courage been designated a core competency by your organization’s CEO? If not, it should be. If team members don’t know how to lead with courage, we have to teach them. The unfilled vacuum of need does not fill itself. 

We need to create leadership development programs that teach people how to lead and give them the confidence to do so. This initiative is designed to find people who have the potential to lead with courage. We need to have mentoring programs in which experienced leaders can teach and advise new ones. We need to have mandatory (yes, that’s right—mandatory) book clubs in which people can read great books on leadership and learn from reading and group discussion. We need to give people leadership assessments to objectively identify their strengths and areas for improvement.

I am sure people will question why they should commit to all this development. Why not just hire people who already have these qualities? Three reasons come to mind: it will cost you dearly to hire experienced leaders; morale will suffer when no one is promoted internally; and there’s no guarantee the new people will be any more courageous than those already in place.

People are not held accountable.

Leaders must hold people accountable for developing and applying these skills. If we don’t inspect, they don’t respect. If people know what is expected of them, they will, in most cases, do it. They need to know that being dauntless in handling conflict is an expectation.

So here is what you should be asking yourself: Do we, as an organization and as a team, have leaders who operate with courage? Is courage a core competency? Can we do more to help our leaders be more courageous?

If you are feeling a little uncomfortable answering these questions, then you have some deep thinking to do. I’ll see you in class.

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