“Courage is the first virtue because it makes all others possible.” Aristotle
Fear infiltrates organizational cultures causing poor results, high anxiety and rampant stress. An oppressive atmosphere makes people shut down and shut up in order to survive. A toxic climate robs an organization of its best asset: the ideas of its people. To overcome this trend, organizations must insist on confident, bold, and courageous leadership. Courage, a necessary core competency of effective leadership, is also the platform on which to build other important principles of leadership. While situational context and timing may change, courage remains the platform of exceptional leadership.
Courage is the strength of character to hold diverse perspectives in the face of opposition, risk, and fear. It’s the characteristic that strengthens and informs all other leadership behaviors such as feedback, conflict resolution, problem solving, decision making, managing performance, admitting mistakes, accountability, ethical behavior, honest communication, and inclusion-all require leadership courage to model and implement.
Demonstrating leadership courage can be scary. It can be uncomfortable to admit you don’t have all the answers, initiate crucial conversations or make unpopular decisions. In order to model courage and inspire courage in others, leaders must demonstrate what Susan Tardanico (Forbes.com, 2013) calls “10 Traits of Courageous Leaders”:
- Confront reality head-on.
- Seek feedback and listen.
- Say what needs to be said.
- Encourage push-back.
- Take action on performance issues.
- Communicate openly and frequently.
- Lead change from the front.
- Make decisions and move forward.
- Give credit to others.
- Hold people (and yourself) accountable.
Of these 10 traits, the one with the most power to effectively model the other traits is saying what needs to be said, at the right time, to the right person, in the right manner. Leaders usually know what needs to be said to raise an issue, solve a problem, bring the truth to light, or right a wrong. Those with courage speak up, often standing alone while those without courage keep quiet. When a leader has the courage to say what needs to be said, that behavior alone fosters a culture of courage for everyone.
Is courage a learnable skill? According to Bill Treasurer (Entrepreneur’s Organization, 2016), there are three types of courage that are developed through practice and repetition:
TRY Courage: The courage of initiative and taking action
TRUST Courage: The courage of confidence in others
TELL Courage: The courage to voice and raise difficult issues
The result of leadership courage is a successful, resilient workforce that shows up every day with more courage and less resistance to organizational change. People and teams take on harder projects and are willing to push beyond the discomfort for the sake of moving forward. When people are willing to speak on important issues they feel heard and included. When people feel included, they try more, trust more and tell even more of their truth.
Fear is an invitation to muster courage. Creative and innovative progress in our environment is the result of someone having the courage to take a risk on a new approach. Leaders must model courage so others can see that courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the willingness to pursue a result that is far more important than fear.