If you lack courage, does it mean you will never be a great leader? In the US, it appears that common sense says courage is a profound part of being a great leader. As a result, aspiring leaders go about their day to demonstrate their courage to the world. However, when you look at many of the most effective leaders, perhaps it is not courage that informs us of their greatness.
What is Courage? One definition says it is the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc. without fear. Bravery is often synonymous with courage. Another definition says: to have courage of one’s convictions, to act in accordance with one’s beliefs, especially in spite of criticism.
On the surface, this sounds like a complete logical formula for leadership. It is possible for a person to spend their day seeking ways to face difficulty, danger and pain in a way that others believe they are qualified to be the leader. Or they think they have to pontificate their beliefs to convince others they have strong convictions. For example, a vegetarian may believe they have to convince others that being a vegetarian is the best diet. If that vegetarian can convert a portion of the people who will listen, they can be seen as a leader. If they are criticized, that may validate the need to show more conviction in order to prove they are the best candidate for leadership. Yay vegetarians!
For some of you, it may be traditional to leave the room when your vegetarian friend starts to rant about why vegetarianism is the best diet. For others, you politely nod your head as you take a bite out of your perfectly cooked and seasoned filet mignon.
In the workplace, many people consider themselves leaders. Yet, they have the same behavior as the vegetarian. In the worse case, the self-proclaimed leader is the person who believes they have to be the smartest in the room. In that case, they may use intimidation to demonstrate their power and intellectual prowess. And when criticized for not listening to their direct reports, they believe they have to overcome criticism with courage. While I wish this were an exaggeration, it happens too often. Because that person is known for confidence and courage, they are promoted to boss – the faithful leader.
On the other hand, in Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great, he talks about, what he calls, a level five leader. A level five leader is someone who empowers people and develops other leaders. When that leader retires, the company remains on an excellent path to long-term success. In Collins’ book, his research showed that level five leaders built companies that rose from good to great. And the greatness continued after that leader left. The irony is he never classified level five leaders as courageous. They were seen as humble people with great communication skills and great listeners with an open door policy.
Furthermore, Collins’ noted the charismatic leader with great courage often created a culture of “yes-men”. People just followed what the leader said. If the leader was not available, people were uncomfortable making decisions. And when that leader retired, the company underperformed.
With that said, while courage can surely make you look good to the masses, it doesn’t mean you are an effective leader. Perhaps the greatest leaders have been people who had no desire to be the smartest in the room. They had a vision they stood for. That vision became a platform for others to shine. For others to shine, it would be imperative for the leader to give a voice to everyone. That way new ideas are discovered and vetted.
If you observe closer, you may find the best leader to be a person committed to building a legacy that can only happen with the help of others. More importantly, the leader is willing to put their butts on the line and be responsible for everything. While being responsible could appear to be courageous, the most responsible leaders know they have to take care of their people. As long as a leader takes care of the people, the people will take care of the company. Therefore, you may find that the greatest leaders are people who stand for a vision, their people and assume responsibility no matter what happens.