Courage and Leadership

Courage isn’t always easy to find in business, whether you’re looking among individual contributors or managers. After all, we’re taught from a young age to keep our mouths shut, follow directions, stay in line, wait for permission. Much easier just to follow the rules and let others take risks than to take them ourselves–we gotta keep our jobs, after all.

So we teach our people to keep their mouths shut and follow directions, then we promote our best performers and put them in positions of leadership over their peers. Sometimes without ever teaching them how to lead or expecting it of them. Oh, we give them some instructions in management techniques, tools, crucial conversations, and the like, but those really amount to more rules to follow, more ways to stay in line and seek permission. We teach management, not leadership.

But aren’t those the tools young managers need? Don’t they need to know how to do an annual review, how to check timekeeping entries, how to make sure their people are working and not taking advantage?

Of course they do. But they also need to understand how to make hard choices, both for themselves and for their team.

And hard choices are entirely about courage.

Hard choices mean, when you’ve just spent six weeks working twelve-hour days, showing up in the office before your team and leaving after, and you’ve just succeeded in whatever project you’re working on, you give the credit to your team. You say to your VP: hey, we did a fantastic job getting this done. I’m honored to have been part of this team. And the one who worked hardest and best was [someone other than yourself].

And you say to your team: y’all did a fantastic job getting this done. I’m proud to be part of this team.

Note the generous use of we and y’all. When you’re the leader, it’s not about you any more.

Unless your team didn’t do so well. Somebody screwed something up on that big project, and it didn’t turn out as well as you, or your boss, hoped. That’s when it becomes about you. Because that’s when you have to stand up in front of your VP and say, this didn’t go as well as I wanted it to, and I’m the team leader, so it’s my fault. No, I won’t tell you which of my team members is to blame, because it’s my fault. I will take the consequences myself before I throw one of mine under the bus.

Then, assuming you still have a job, you have to go back to your team and deal with the issue, whether that means training or counseling or letting your weak link go.

Do that, and you have your team’s loyalty from then on. Don’t do it, and the best you can hope for is compliance.

One courageous moment can mean the difference between a manager and a leader. When you get the chance, swallow hard and stand up.

I've been a soldier, a dreamer, a working stiff, a leader. A husband, father, example (good and otherwise), and now a survivor. I write about courage, because courage is what enables us to accomplish the impossible. If you draw breath, I love you. If you love in whatever way seems best to you and want others to love in whatever way seems best to them, I am your ally. If you believe someone is less than you because they do not love the way you do, I oppose you. If you see someone as a threat to be abused or destroyed merely because they do not look like you, or love like you, or worship like you, I am your enemy. I am a joyful and courageous man. And I stand with you who love.