The more time I spend with military and national security leaders, the more I’m convinced of the magnitude of a certain leadership quality: courage. That might not surprise you; everyone knows military service members need courage to put their lives on the line every day. There’s no debating that, but the courage I’m talking about applies to all leaders everywhere, whether your organization is made up of hundreds of thousands of people, or just a handful. Let me explain.
The Courage to Accept Responsibility
It’s not hard to find folks who are willing to accept a title, but it is pretty tough to find individuals willing to accept responsibility for the performance of a team. By definition, these leaders aren’t just accepting responsibility for themselves, but for the collective individual performance of each team member, regardless of their individual level of ability. If the team’s objectives are not achieved, the leader is the one whose neck is on the line. This is why empowering leaders are so rare; most either blame an under-performer on their team, blame changes in the environment, continually cite the need for more information (as a tactic for delaying making a decision), or micro-manage as a way to control the outcome (at the expense of the team).
The Courage to Make Tough Decisions
The larger the organization, the tougher it is to negotiate tough decisions. For many leaders, accepting risk is just too tall of a task. They would rather pass the decision – and the risk/responsibility for failure – up the ladder for the next leader to make. Eventually the executives at the top wonder why it takes so long for anything to get done and why everyone needs them to fix every little problem. Unfortunately, punishing failure (instead of promoting learning from past successes AND failures) helps to reinforce this negative behavior. Everyone makes mistakes. Making a single wrong decision rarely breaks any organization. Having the guts to make what could be a wrong decision can net an incredible amount of benefit long-term both for the organization and the individuals involved.
The Courage to Initiate Difficult Conversations
This one may require the most courage of the three. It’s human nature to shy away from difficult conversations, whether they are simply uncomfortable, intrusive, or unpopular. A team member needs to be confronted on a poor performance issue instead of shuffled through another annual review. Or a group of executives who are all in agreement need someone to speak up about the cold hard facts everyone else has been ignoring. It’s never easy to be the one to say what needs to be said when no one else is willing to say it. But the cost to the organization is great: continued poor performance, politicking, and ineffectiveness.
Fortunately, some organizations are reversing the trend by highlighting the need to lead at a new dimension counter-cultural to the status quo. And the quality their leaders must possess is not so much a skill as it is a doctrine. Courage is much more about who you are as a person and your willingness to put yourself in tough and messy situations than it is about your performance ability.
The bad news is that many organizations continue to hinder courage because they tend to reward maintaining the status quo more than they reward progress, which makes it all the more difficult to embrace. The great news is that as YOU start putting courage to use in your leadership community, you give your influence the chance to grow by leaps and bounds.