Courage – An Essential Dimension of Leadership Character


“To act requires courage. To innovate requires even more courage. Courage makes change possible. Intellectual courage is necessary to challenge conventional wisdom and imagine new possibilities”….. and a call for Leadership Courage: “No problem left to fester. No opportunity unexamined. No idea left behind”. Rosabeth Moss Kantor, HBR. Dec 2011.

Courage is a must for leaders. Leadership is not a position; it is a choice. It includes preparedness: –

  • to take calculated risks without being reckless,
  • to stand up, speak out and speak alone,
  • to take responsibility
  • to admit to error or lack of knowledge,
  • to make a product recall,
  • to adopt a lower risk strategy,
  • to stick to a strategy despite setbacks but to abort a failure,
  • to delegate confidently, requesting the “What” without mandating the “How”,
  • to shoulder the blame for a subordinate but to dismiss a non-performer,
  • to say “No!”

Consequences of timidity include: –

  • loss of competitive edge,
  • moral muteness,
  • tolerance of poor performance,
  • indecision,
  • meeting and analysis inertia,
  • suppression of initiative,
  • disregard of problems,
  • failure to support dynamic team members,
  • failure to restructure.

All elements of courage or its absence are important. An unusual one is the courage to say “No”. It appeals because it is the antithesis of audacity and generally requires the No-sayer to rebel against group-think. This stance is informed by experience and judgement, and requires a lot of moral courage. In a boardroom context, I believe New Zealanders place too high a value on solidarity, agreement and harmony. We do need to put the Company first, being tough on the issues, evaluating risk, and holding the CEO continuously to account. A board meeting is not a love fest.

In centenary year, I imagine that numbers of you are re-reading the accounts of the terrible Somme and Flanders battles. Rarely did a general stand up against group-think to say “No! This is crazy! We are not learning from our experience!” Even our own General Russell allowed the disaster of Passchendaele to occur.

In a business context, strategy sets the direction and scope of future efforts. Even if a proposal falls within the scope boundary, it may still be unwise to pursue if it lacks resources, skills, timing, a convincing business case or a committed champion. It might be smart to hold back from a good idea to await a great one. It is also OK to trust your instinct and just say “No”.

Of course, there is an opposite danger here – that of adopting a timid mindset, stultifying action and innovation. “Whatever actions you take, keep in mind that over the course of life, you will fail far more from timidity, procrastination, and carefulness than you will from just stepping up to the plate and, as we say in Australia, giving it a bloody go!” Margie Warrell, Find Your Courage!

In the words of a dear departed mentor: “It’s time to screw up our navels for lion hunting!

Be courageous, leaders!


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