Modeling Courage: What’s It All About?

imagesWe thought a lot about courage when writing Leadership Matters. When we began, if you’d asked us to write down our top three leadership characteristics, courage might not have made the list. But as we listened and questioned our 36 leaders, it was clear that courage is key. Courage is often the catalyst, because without courage vision is missing and without vision there is no action. That’s actually rooted in a bit of Aristotle, who, among other things, wrote, “Courage is the first of the human qualities because it is the one that guarantees all others.”

Too often we associate courage with strength not leadership, with Navy SEALs rescuing Captain Phillips on the high seas, with a lone survivor’s harrowing return to civilization or a wounded warrior’s mountain summit. But in the world of history museums and heritage organizations there’s not much call for daring-do or brute strength–well, maybe there is, but that’s another blog. Courage in the history museum world is more nuanced and more personal, and definitely a necessary facet in a leader’s profile.

Why courage? Because sometimes being mediocre isn’t the right choice. Sometimes leaders have to take the counterintuitive approach and push, pull and drag an organization outside its proverbial comfort zone. That takes courage. As one of our interviewees said, “Courage is about conveying vision and having the strength to sell something even when it doesn’t make any sense.” Courageous leaders are entrepreneurial. They are willing to challenge outdated rituals and deal with uncomfortable situations. Which brings us to the personal side of courage and leadership. Courageous leaders have to be willing to go first.  That sounds dubious, but it’s important. Leaders lead by modeling. If you want your board to pay attention to its strategic plan, you need to make a centerpiece. If you believe the mission statement is old, tired and boring, you need to stick your neck out and offer everyone a new version to tweak, change and challenge.

And be ready to live with the results. In these situations being courageous doesn’t mean maintaining control. It means quite the opposite particularly when it comes to feedback. When it’s time for evaluations, why not go first? Offer your team or staff the criteria you’ll use for their annual reviews and ask that they apply them to you. Have them work together. Listen to what they say. Take it to heart. It takes courage for any leader to make herself vulnerable, but leadership is about learning, constantly holding oneself up and examining strengths and weaknesses. Don’t ever confuse an open door policy with a 360-degree review. It’s the asking for help that builds trust, and that’s what takes courage.

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