Aristotle called courage the first virtue because it makes all of the other virtues possible. Think of this in terms of the business world. Can you excel as a leader-manager, without courage? Can you successfully innovate, without courage? Can you make the tough decisions and follow through without it?
Courage is too rare in the business world. And too rarely discussed.
Where courage is direly needed, but in short supply, is often in the decision to stop, to sharply change course, or to go against the grain. To let a non-performer go. To give tough feedback or ask for one. To confront unhelpful behavior. To insist that agreed upon protocols are followed. To make a costly change to increase safety, or protect the environment. To sell a division or cancel a project.
A pre-requisite for an effective leader-manager
Courage is table stakes for leader-managers. Without it, the role is simply maintenance.
A leader-manager must be able to make a tough decision, often an unpopular one, and then follow up – execute that decision, insist on the actions to actually make it happen, or make it happen themselves.
Courage made visible
Say you’re on a hiring committee to engage a new key employee, and the decision has been made that courage is a sine qua non. What will you actually look for in each candidate, what examples will you ask for? In other words, how is courage evidenced in the business world?
Challenge the status quo
Leaders need to have courage to challenge the status quo. These challenges may feel surprisingly minor. But they’re not.
For instance, make it a default that your meetings start on time, with each individual arriving prepared. Do this by a) starting on time, regardless of whether anyone is missing, and b) personally telling people not to be late, and/or be prepared, when they haven’t done so.
Granite but warm, and without the need to be nasty.
Why don’t we do this? Why do we ignore lateness, when every minute an individual is late wastes minutes of everyone’s action time, each time, all year long?
We ignore it – or pretend to – because we’re embarrassed. Because it feels uncomfortable to reproach a colleague about something that seems so … childish.
Stop that. Hold people accountable to what they said they’d do anyway (you’ll be rewarded, trust me!). Pleasantly and firmly, deliver the on-time-and-prepared message.
It’s one of many ways to make it crystal clear, as a leader-manager, that time is the most valuable resource. Not to be frittered away – one’s own or anyone else’s.
Courage and resilience go hand in hand. Many individuals are worn down by the daily tribulations of commerce, management, and life in general. Such a person is not well equipped to be a leader-manager. It’s that strength and conviction to remain positive, and keep people motivated to be an exceptional leader-manager.
Every seat at the table counts
In my decades of coaching, consulting, and study, I’ve found that keeping people who do not add value is the most common and costly example of lack of courage. That unwillingness to say: “You’re a great person. Just not here. It’s time to free up your future.”
You’ll always encounter a slow driver on a two-lane highway, holding up a line of frustrated people behind. But this situation could have been solved if the person behind the slowpoke passes, or even the person behind that. It’s not the hiring of a ‘slowpoke’ that’s the critical error – it’s the failure of a leader-manager in the first few months, or first year, to address the issue.
Make every seat at your table count. Make sure each is filled by an individual with the drive and ability to deliver results. Energy is contagious.
Step outside that comfort zone
Stepping outside your comfort zone is virtually a synonym for courage. You can’t have one without the other.
And there are many reasons not to step outside that zone! We fear all the messages we’ll hear, whether or not spoken aloud: “Don’t rock the boat,” “We don’t like you, we don’t want you around.” We also fear our own inner critic: “My opinion doesn’t matter,” and “There’s no point, it won’t work, it’s futile.”
We can learn to step outside our comfort zone. And we get better with practice. Think of Toastmasters, where people around the world go to learn public speaking. Participants almost invariably improve, many by leaps and bounds.
Courage can be learned
In a business environment, nothing is life-threatening; courage can be learned and practiced. You can find that learning through an outside third party, an internal mentor, or even a formal course through a business school. In terms of practice, ideally you are in an environment where colleagues reinforce courage at work, to help engrain the behavior. Or even better, use courage to be a part of creating that environment.
Courage is essential for change
At the end of the day, you need courage to be a leader-manager, because leadership involves changing the status quo. And we know, in business, change is a constant.
You might have heard the comment that “Courageous leaders are in high demand and short supply.” You can change that in your workplace – both in building and practicing your own courage, and in inspiring it in others.