Courage continues to be a critical quality in 21st Century leadership

Without it, we would not stand up for others, forge ahead with audacious goals or just admit when we’ve made a mistake. We need courage every day.

In leadership roles, the exposure, vulnerability and risk are greater. Leading change, taking on disruptive competition and backing costly decisions with bold personal action require confidence that only courage can buy.

And what about moral courage? It’s harder because it’s not about facts in the business case, but about ethics. And you need to know your own. The greatest acts of leadership are those that put the greater good of humankind before personal or partisan interests.

Not all decisions are so great. Acts of kindness, giving helpful feedback or asking an awkward question are humble, but they take courage, too. Or they go undone and unsaid, and we are all the worse for that.

So, how do we call up our courage when we need it?


Calling Up your Courage

With experience, courageous action is spontaneous. But there will always be new situations in which the right thing to do is not at all clear. In situations like these, these guidelines will help you clarify and decide what to do:

  • Be self-aware Be present, understand the issue and your reaction to it
  • Be open Ask questions, adapt to the evidence and the views you hear
  • Be humble Accept you may not know and be willing to change your mind
  • Be compassionate Empathise with those involved and affected, show you care
  • Be decisive Weigh personal, ethical and rational arguments, be brave and decide
  • Be quick Communicate quickly, respond to feedback, be flexible, press on

We know when we have to be brave. We feel it. It can be daunting but these guidelines may help you when you need it.

Be open to the challenges you face and the risk they entail; listen and learn with humility. Allow space for compassion and kindness, apply moral principles and rational judgement before acting bravely and deciding with speed.


The Advantage of Courage

Courageous leaders earn respect because they:

  • Stand up for their colleagues
  • Admit when they make mistakes
  • Lead teams of people who are more experienced than they are
  • Set and strive for higher standards of excellence
  • Change direction when their current plans are not working
  • Confront reality, analyse the facts and present them persuasively
  • Take action on poor performance issues
  • Deal with disciplinary issues
  • Reveal their own vulnerability
  • Ask for feedback, listen well and respond positively
  • Hold others accountable

The list could go on…. Courage gives you the ability to do your job well.

It may require one thing, however.


Courage Grows in Safe Places

Much has been said about the damaging effect of fear on human performance. Courage is more likely to thrive in places where those who take risks, can do so without fear of criticism.

For senior leaders, creating a safe place at work requires an awareness of their own leadership style, a willingness to listen without judgement and the ability to create a climate where innovation, risk-taking and open dialogue can flourish without intimidation.

Courageous leadership and a climate of safety go hand-in-hand. In the 21st century, where organisations need solutions to unforeseen problems, the ability to do both is a vital capability all leaders need.



Author: Tim Coburn ([email protected])