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Courage and action are not the same thing, although they are sometimes easy to confuse. In a recent Forbes blog, 10 Traits of Courageous Leaders, Susan Tardanico suggests ten actions leaders can take that will – she argues – have positive benefits for them and for those they lead.

  1. Confront reality head-on.
  2. Seek feedback and listen.
  3. Say what needs to be said.
  4. Encourage push-back.
  5. Take action on performance issues.
  6. Communicate openly and frequently.
  7. Lead change.
  8. Make decisions and move forward.
  9. Give credit to others.
  10. Hold people (and yourself) accountable.

While she offers explanations and contextualisation for each of these items, her preceding paragraphs offered a broader context of a period of a tenuous economy and an environment of workplace stress and anxiety during which many – including leaders – may be strongly tempted to keep their heads down and avoid risk. The remarks and comments it’s invoked, however, cover rather greater ground – and in some cases beg larger questions.

Brian Dubowski, for example, offers the following:

Lets not confuse courage as always needing to act.

While the background situation that Tardanico paints can induce inertia, it can conversely produce its opposite some leaders: a tendency to feel that not one but several possibly quite drastic actions need to be taken, and taken urgently. Although Tardanico’s first trait encourages leaders to resist ‘rose-coloured glasses’, resisting an urge to panic is also a valuable form of courage.

Dubowski’s remarks are framed in a call for authenticity and consistency in leadership, regardless of the prevailing mood or climate, although this implicitly begs another of the responses. Inga Dengel’s comments suggest that behaviours that are being labelled in the piece as ‘courageous’ are actual standard expectations of good leadership, and sees this as a broader issue. As the original author describes this viewpoint:

[…] the “system” is producing mediocre leaders, and these leaders are lacking such fundamental skills and behaviors that what might be considered normal conduct for truly good leaders is now being called “courageous.”

But I’m more struck by another observation. On first reading of the piece, I was moved by Tardanico’s listed traits and their explanations, but suspicious or sceptical about some of the prose in her introductory paragraphs:

These are the times that call for bold, confident, courageous leadership. As history has shown, those with the guts to step forward, take some risks and lead change during downturns […]”

I felt that the rhetoric here – ‘bold’, ‘confident’, ‘guts’ – painted an unhelpful picture, and conjured an undercurrent of derring-do and heroics that were not really the point. (Although even if we track back through history as far as the Ancient Greek philosophers, even Plato’s descriptions of courage are couched in terms of fighting and war.)

The issue of the definition of courage is a point taken up by the Ethics Resource Center, whose website draws a distinction between two forms of this virtue:

What makes courage so hard to define? We use the word courage to honor the firefighters, rescue workers, and police officers who ran into the two towers that were on the verge of collapse. We also use the word courage to honor the individuals who blew the whistle on corporate corruption.

The two cases are very different: in the first case the individual’s very life was in jeopardy by the physical actions being performed; in the second case the individuals risked their jobs by telling the truth. For the first case, we can distinguish the actions as being physically courageous. In the second case, we can say the actions were morally courageous.”

As Tardanico’s subsequent list shows, courage also includes holding yourself accountable, encouraging pushback and seeking out feedback – including negative feedback – on your own behaviours and actions: taking the personally rough with the personally smooth. To quote Hemingway, “Courage is grace under pressure.”

Even the author, while recognising that fearful circumstances can reduce risk appetite, couches her call for courageous leadership in one response to a comment in militaristic terms:

As leaders, we do our people and our organizations a great service by resisting the temptation to hide behind the bunker, and instead, stepping out and leading the charge. It takes guts, but that’s why we get paid the big bucks! ;-)”

Those big bucks, however, are not simply about ordering your charges over the top. (The military analogies we use are also antiquated almost to the extent of a perverse charm: how courageous is pressing a button several hundred miles away?) Grace under pressure is also about – to use another phrase with a sabre-rattling backstory – holding the line: ensuring values are still lived, and that they are still modelled. Grace is as slippery a word as courage: while it may convey a religious connotation or a simple reference to elegance and refinement, the sense here is of maintaining a sense of propriety and consideration for others. And of not letting go of important elements that support effective working relationships and a sense of sustainability.

I also think there’s another element that was missed, and one that was made eloquently by Tardanico’s Forbes blogger colleague Erika Andersen a few months ago in another piece: Courageous Leaders Don’t Make Excuses…They Apologize.

Admitting our mistakes, acknowledging offence or inconvenience caused and conceding our own failings is painful at worst and embarrassing at best. Doing so takes … well, courage. And as Andersen points out, some people are lured into a secondary failing when they lack the courage to fully apologise:

Stay in the first person: Many, perhaps most, apologies run off the rails at this point, when the apologizer shifts into the second person, e.g., “I’m sorry….you didn’t understand me.” Or “I’m sorry….you feel that way.” Suddenly, you’re no longer apologizing for your actions; you’re telling the other person that you regret their actions or feelings. A true apology sounds like, “I’m sorry I….”or “I’m sorry we…”

Writing about the foundations of trust here over three years ago, we made the point that admitting our shortcomings – even if only to ourselves – requires a degree of strength as well as integrity. I couldn’t find a comparable quote from a business leader, but a comedian – Charlie Chaplin – put it well:

It takes courage to make a fool of yourself.”