Courageous Leadership

When I ask people about the attributes of leaders they most admire the word “courage” is often mentioned.  And when I ask them what courageous leaders do, they talk about actions such as making unpopular decisions, standing up for what they believe in, calling out poor behaviour, putting themselves on the line by taking calculated risks, and saying NO when it needs to be said.

One question I ask is whether admirable actions such as these are always effective?  I think that to be effective courageous leaders also need to be diplomats.

Being a “courageous leader” is not inherently productive.  In political environments such as business organizations, courage needs to be tempered by realism and diplomacy.

For example, giving a blunt NO to a Board risks you being branded obstinate and out of touch, to the detriment of yourself and your team, whereas giving a diplomatic No through persuading the Board that No is the best answer for the organization can enhance your reputation as an insightful and strong minded leader.

Another example: Australian political analysts have said that the framers of the infamous 2014 Federal Budget did not lack in courage, but failed to accept the realism of the community’s expectations and lacked the negotiation skills necessary for the Budget’s implementation.

In organizations, courageous acts are risky acts and containing this risk may mean metering out acts of courage to the issues that count.  It is, of course, counterproductive for leaders to seek out conflict in order to prove their courage.  It is wiser to follow the advice of Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” that, “He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight”, or to remember from cricket that it is not from lack of courage but with wisdom that good opening batsmen often allow difficult balls to “go through to the keeper”.

One aspect of courageous leadership that should however rarely be tempered is a leader’s willingness to seek feedback about their performance as a leader.

By periodically asking for and accepting constructive feedback from their team, leaders model leadership behaviour and increase the prospect that team members will themselves seek and accept feedback from others. This inevitably results in better organisational performance.

If you’d like to ramp up your courageous leadership, you might try asking each member of your team to score you out of 10 (with 1 being Poor and 10 Excellent) in relation to the following questions: 

  1. Have I clearly explained the organisation’s goals, how our team fits in, and what I’m expecting the team to achieve?
  2. Have I clearly explained your role, responsibilities and what I’m expecting from you?
  3. Have I clearly explained how I want the team to work together so that everyone understands the different roles and responsibilities and how it fits together?
  4. Am I providing you with all of the information and communication you need to work successfully?
  5. Am I providing you with the sort of feedback, coaching, mentoring and support you expect and need from someone in my role?
  6. Am I behaving in such a way that you always feel comfortable approaching me to discuss difficult issues?
  7. Have I helped to create a psychologically safe team culture – where you feel safe sharing your opinions and asking questions without fear of being undermined or otherwise put at risk?

When you get a score that is less than 9, you need to gently explore what it is you might do, or stop doing to help you improve.

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