We all get tangled up in the word ‘leadership’. In the business sphere, more books have been written about it, more theories have been expressed and more confusion and arguments driven by the meaning of ‘leader’ and ‘leadership’ than any other term. Even academics get themselves into a fuss by trying to separate management and leadership (as if one person could only ever hold one of these roles) and trying to figure if leadership is situation specific or person specific (how about a bit of both?).
So why write about courageous leadership?
Simply put, leadership is courage in action. For some, leadership is courage. However, in this odd world that we live people often call themselves leaders when their behaviour suggests that courage is the last thing they wish to display. It also recognises that many people are leaders without the job title or even the formal recognition of managing others.
Leaders have a unique perspective of the world and take personal risks to achieve vision. Great leaders have a unique perspective, take personal risks and inspire others to help them achieve that vision.
People however don’t have to run businesses before they can become leaders – as we know courage is a competency and like any competency it must be practiced before you can become proficient in it. In fact, some of the most inspiring leaders I have ever come across were work colleagues who so believed in the values of the firm we both worked for were prepared to stand up to Senior Management when they thought they were out of line.
What does courageous leadership look like in action? At the heart of any courageous leader is vision – the ability to see a different future.
The second key trait of a courageous leader is conviction – the belief that their vision is more important than any personal fear that they may have.
Together, vision and conviction makes for a powerful leader and allows them to inspire others.
So what can you do to become a more courageous leader? We’ve already covered a number of different things that you can do as an individual to practice courage but here are some things that you can do to improve your leadership abilities;
Know your vision
It sounds simple doesn’t it? However, most potential leaders fall at this first step because they make one of two mistakes
- they don’t believe they have a vision
- they borrow someone else’s
Each of us a vision about what the future should look like – it’s simply the scope of it that differs. While most of us don’t have a global vision for humankind like Martin Luther King, Ghandi or John F Kennedy, we do have a sense of how we and others should conduct our own lives, how the team should work together or how the organization should proceed in order to be successful. At whatever level you pick, this vision of the future is your starting point.
While clarifying your own vision is a starting point, be careful not to take someone else’s. One of the quickest routes to failure is mistake popularity with leadership. A popular vision will not only lack conviction (see the point above), but could lead you to rapidly changing your mind and losing credibility.
It is critical to recognise that vision without conviction is not leadership, simply wishful thinking. By the very nature of their vision, courageous leaders will challenge the status quo and will be tested at every turn. Without conviction of purpose, ‘want to be’ leaders will fail at the earliest hurdles.
Understand the risks and the potential
One of the biggest barriers to acting courageously is over-estimating the risks of action. Courageous leaders understand the risks of their actions but still take them. Courage is informed risk taking whilst foolhardiness is uninformed risk taking. Courageous leadership is about recognising that the end goal is the vision and not the journey.
Successful courageous leaders do their research and recognise that in most situations, the actual risks of action are lower than the initially perceived risks while the real benefits are much higher than the perceived ones. Informed risk taking allows courageous leaders to make choices and adjust their actions as events unfold, rather than proceeding without the benefit of learning as you take the journey.
Courage is risk taking in action. All of us can dream of a different future, courageous leaders act on that dream. Whether it is simply speaking up to state your views or persuading others to support you, successful courageous leaders recognise that taking action is the first step to inspiring others and building the credibility that comes with demonstrating conviction.
We all have it in us to become courageous leaders. Such leaders do not emerge fully formed into senior roles in organizations but come from the testing grounds of life. What will you do to develop your courageous leadership skills?