“Courage is the first virtue that makes all other virtues possible” — Aristotle.
Aristotle was a big fan of courage. He thought it the one human quality from which all others spring — and he was really on to something, especially when it comes to the question of what makes an effective leader.
Think about it…
Great leadership is the ability to innovate, to refuse to settle for the status quo, and to take risks. That takes courage.
Great leadership is about delegating, about admitting that you can’t do everything by yourself, it’s about putting trust in your team. That takes courage.
Great leadership is about making hard decisions, about doing what is right rather than what is easy, it’s about integrity and character. That takes a hell of a lot of courage.
Yet, examples of poor leadership are all around us. Just look at our current administration! We are in a leadership crisis of epic proportions and too few in our political leadership have the courage to act. So many politicians are deeply concerned about what our narcissistic Commander-in-Chief will do next, yet there is little resistance.
So what’s stopping our politicians from acting with courage? From being the effective leaders we need? From being the effective leaders they want to be?
Want to guess?
The obvious answer is fear and if that was your answer, I get it.
Feel the fear, acknowledge it and act anyway.
But fear isn’t to blame. Our reaction to fear is the real problem.
What do we usually think of when we imagine what courage looks like? Soldiers laughing and joking together as they prepare for battle? Facing down your enemy with a steady hand and not a lick of perspiration on your forehead?
We tend to believe that to be courageous we mustn’t feel fear. Or at the very least, we mustn’t show it. As Earl Wilson once said:
“Courage is the art of being the only one who knows you’re scared to death”.
But we’re wrong on that one. I was once told by a Navy SEAL instructor that fear and action can coexist and he was right; fear is a normal biological reaction and it doesn’t detract from your ability to show courage. Hearing this eased my anxiety about freezing when faced with fear. Knowing that everyone experiences fear at times helped me find the courage to act — and it can do the same for you.
Once you buy into the idea that fear and action can coexist there is no longer the need to feel ashamed of being fearful. You don’t need to hide the fact that you’re scared to death, but you do need to use it.
Courage and leadership.
So how do we apply this to the boardroom rather than the battlefield?Forget the life and death situations, forget the Avengers, or John Wayne in “The Fighting Seabees” (I couldn’t resist a nod to this one since “The Fighting Seabees was my unit in the military. Plus the man could fire a bar automatic rifle in each hand — I could barely hold up one!).
No, forget Hollywood’s version of courage. Real courage isn’t only found in life and death situations, or in making life-changing decisions. Real courage is what we do every single day. It’s in the day-to-day decisions you have to make for your company or your team — or indeed your country.
It’s every time you have to show your integrity by standing up for what you believe in, even if you’re standing alone. It’s when you feel the fear and use it to do what’s right.
I don’t believe people are born with a Courage DNA gene — it’s something you develop, not something you inherit. It’s something that comes, in small segments, from your family, your teachers, your friends, and in my case, a drill instructor!
But more than that, it’s something that comes from within you.
Being courageous most often comes from making small decisions, performed often. It’s a muscle that you can strengthen daily; every time you stand up for something you believe in, every time you take the right path instead of the easy path. Having the courage to speak up is only step one; you must act to close the loop and let everyone know your resolve.
Real courage is born out of your character, heart, and commitment to do the right thing!
And when you do this on a routine basis, you strengthen that courage muscle. You consciously train yourself for any bigger tests to your courage that may come along, whether in business leadership, politics, or in your personal life.
This is the lesson I wish our politicians could learn.
They’re afraid, of course. Standing up for what you believe in carries the risk of repercussions and no one wants to risk losing their position, the career they’ve worked so hard for. But when you take on a leadership role, whether you’re in charge of a company or a country, that’s what you sign up for. Feeling your personal fear and acting anyway, for the greater good of your organization. That is real courage.
And it’s what we need right now from both political parties.
Al Schauer is the Founder of PointNorth Consulting. He offers coaching and mentoring to aspiring leaders committed to leading with character. His new book on values and doing the right thing will be available Spring 2019. Sign up through the link below to receive updates on how you can purchase his book.