Leadership and Courage

Courage has many faces.  It doesn’t always show up complete with epaulets and a shiny sword yelling “Charge!!”  In fact, I would suggest it more often demands a much subtler approach.  Either way, courage is not something we can buy or fake.  It lives in the heart of our character.  And, it is something we hope to have enough of when we need it most.

Brave leaders go first and inspire others to find their own courage. They defy convention. They admit their mistakes, apologize and make amends when they are wrong.  Brave leaders explore unknown territory in service of something greater than themselves.  They deliver bad news with clarity, determination and compassion. And, they stay the course when the going gets tough

Brave leaders, too, frequently look in their personal, and organizational mirrors to find something in themselves or in the systems they create that works against their potential for achieving their goals. This calls for a special kind of courage, one that can feel less noble than the others.  But workplaces have little hope of thriving long if this work goes unattended or is swept under the rug in hopes that no one will notice.

Here’s a case in point. A few weeks ago, I met with a friend, a niche specialist in communication.   She shared this story with me.

On being invited to meet with the CEO of a company to discuss business opportunities, she entered the premises and almost immediately detected a certain tension in the air.  And, while people were impeccably polite to her, she noticed that throughout the office, no one was smiling.

The CEO, a clever and efficient woman, appeared to have all the hallmarks of a successful business leader.  At some point in the conversation, she asked my friend if she did other communications work because she had noticed that the e-mails being passed among her staff and out to customers had a tone that seemed terse and unwelcoming.  The CEO asked my friend if she could possibly fix that with some communications training.

Of course, my friend, a smart and intuitive woman herself, knew all too well where this conversation was headed.  Could she ‘fix’ the tone of the emails being sent from this office?  Yes, she could do that.   The bigger question…why people were writing snarky emails went unanswered.  It could be that this CEO had no idea why but, when pressed, she also was not willing to ‘go there’

This is not an unfamiliar story.  In fact, I would hazard to say that more companies than we’d like to think spend inordinate amounts of time and money addressing unpleasant symptoms if only to be able to say they are doing something to improve their employee, and by association, customer experience.

We know of course that underneath it all lurk many cans of worms and a few Pandora’s Boxes that need opening before anything can be truly resolved.  This is where that special kind of courage comes in.  It is the kind that asks us to face our imperfect selves; to find our humility and to lay ourselves open to closer examination.

When I think about courage in leadership, this quote comes to mind,

“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear. ” ~ Ambrose Redmoon

Good leadership is about focusing on what’s really important among other things.  Sometimes that means having the courage to relentlessly pursue truth, even at the cost of personal pride, in service of building something everyone can be proud of.

That’s what I think anyway. What do you think?



Filed under communication, Leadership, Leadership Development, NOWLeadership, Organizational Effectiveness, Self Knowledge

13 responses to “Leadership and Courage

  1. Great story. Yes the courage to go deep and really understand what is happening… and that what we are doing may need to change… is vital for leaders. I think sometimes leaders think they have courage handled, because they are making bold decisions in other arenas… or taking big risks. Sometimes the most courageous acts are within ourselves.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Karin ~ Agreed. And, we never really know what we’re made of until the day comes when we have to look at ourselves, warts and all! Thanks for coming by 🙂

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  3. What a beautifully written post, Gwyn. I agree that the courage to face ourselves is a special kind of courage and one that, sadly, many leaders don’t embrace. Fixing the tone of the emails is like putting a band-aid on a bruise. It will cover it up but not correct the source of the injury. Thanks for the post!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Jamie ~ “putting a band aid on a bruise” is a good way to describe it. Unfortunately, that kind of bruise rarely heals. Thanks for your kind words. It’s always a pleasure to see you here 🙂

  4. Alex Jones

    In my opinion people have to be careful with the truth. A cousin of mine is involved behind the scenes with the Hong Kong team that is competing in the London Olympics, and they have to be careful about how they say things so that the Chinese don’t lose face.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Alex ~ Yes, there are people whose cultures have a low tolerance for the rawness of truth, where honour trumps truth, in fact. And, truth has a way of being highly personal and interpretive. I think though, that in western society, we have better opportunity to seek it out and, in the long run, benefit from what we find. this is where the courage part comes in 🙂
      Thanks for coming by and for making me think more about what it means to have courage. Cheers.

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  7. Mt. Math

    A first principle of safety awareness and hazard identification in the physical world is root-cause analysis. The same holds true in addressing morale and leadership issues. C-suite leaders who bring in consultants to address leadership, corporate culture, interpersonal and/or morale issues need to “be careful what they wish for!”

    • Gwyn Teatro

      I believe there is a place for consultants in supporting C-suite leaders but agree they should never be used as a shield to hide behind nor to apply ‘interventions’ designed to treat systemic symptoms. When that happens it becomes costly in more ways than one. Thanks for that!

  8. Max

    Having the courage to be brutally honest (especially if it could cause friction) is admirable. There are times that this courageous act can help shift change for an individual, team or company in a positive manner. I do agree with Alex, as with many different cultures, this could be seen as taboo. Saving face is such a value to many cultures.

    Great read!


    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Max ~ I prefer my honesty to be succinct but light on the brutal 🙂 No matter how it’s delivered though, I think that tired old cliche about it being the best policy is quite true. Thank you very much for coming by and for taking the time to comment.

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