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True Leadership Requires Courage

April 1, 2024

In an era where leadership is not just about directing from the top but also about inspiring and influencing from within, courage emerges as a foundational virtue. It empowers leaders to face fears, uncertainties, and risks with confidence, bravery, and determination. Leadership, intrinsically linked to courage, involves the boldness to align with one’s beliefs, even in the face of adversity, making it a pivotal trait for personal growth and developing a vibrant organizational culture.

A Leader’s courage inspires teams, drives innovation, and challenges the status quo. Someone has to push the limits of what’s possible to ensure progress. Someone has to ask the difficult questions to ensure resolution. Someone has to model vulnerability so that others will do the same and we can deal with the real issues. Someone has to swim against the tide when the current is taking us in the wrong direction. 

The absence of courage often results in a preference for comfort and avoidance of challenges. Today, a lack of courage is noticeably detrimental to society. It manifests in a reluctance to address ethical dilemmas, challenge injustices, or stand up for what is right. It allows people with power to behave badly, often with minimal consequences. This deficiency stifles progress, undermines trust, and perpetuates inequities. In leadership and everyday life, fostering moral courage is imperative to confront and resolve societal challenges, ensuring a just and thriving community for future generations.

Writers and thought leaders like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Joseph Campbell, and. E.E. Cummings have highlighted courage as the essence of personal growth and transformation. Emerson viewed courage as the foundation of a meaningful life, emphasizing the importance of being true to oneself and pursuing one’s path despite opposition. He famously stated, “Whatever you do, you need courage.” Conversely, Campbell saw it as vital to the hero’s journey of self-discovery, facing the unknown, and embracing one’s authenticity. He stated, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” Lastly, author E.E. Cummings agreed, “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”

Religious texts and teachings across Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism echo this sentiment, illustrating courage as central to faith, pursuing enlightenment, and fulfilling one’s duty. In these contexts, courage is about overcoming external challenges, confronting internal fears, and standing firm in one’s convictions. In his famous Sermon on The Mount, Jesus of Nazareth challenges his audience to think and behave differently towards one another (and the establishment) in service to a higher purpose (God), regardless of the earthly consequences. His teachings were considered revolutionary at the time and ended up costing him his life.

The practical implications of courage in leadership are profound. Leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, who used nonviolent protest to gain India’s independence; Winston Churchill, who withstood Germany’s early gains in WWII to lead Great Britain to victory; and Nelson Mandela, who spent a large portion of his life in prison protesting Apartheid, exemplify how courage can lead to transformative outcomes. In business, figures such as Steve Jobs and Indra Nooyi, two people with completely different personalities, demonstrate that courage can drive industry-changing innovation and champion major inclusivity and sustainability initiatives, respectively.

Recommended Action Items for Leaders:

  1. Cultivate Self-Awareness: Understand your values and beliefs. Courageous leadership starts with being true to oneself.
  2. Embrace Your Fear: Acknowledge fears and uncertainties as part of the leadership journey. Push through your worries and concerns the best you can. No one is immune from some level of self-doubt but steel your resolve.
  3. Take Calculated Risks: Encourage innovation and creativity by fostering an environment where taking calculated risks is celebrated, even if it means facing potential failure.
  4. Encourage Open Communication: Create a culture where diverse voices are heard and valued. Courageous leaders listen and are open to challenging conversations.
  5. Lead by Example: Embody the courage you wish to see in your organization. Your actions will inspire others to act courageously.