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The Courage of Leaders in the 21st Century

Updated on April 5, 2015

In the work world, have you heard someone say? Who dropped the ball? When are they going to do it right? When is someone going to train me? Why do we have to go through all of this change? What is this cost of this type of questioning in terms of dollars lost to the organization? The answer is sometimes difficult to quantify but let me tell you the cost is significant. This type of questioning demonstrates below the line thinking or a victim cycle. Lack of accountability means that time and energy is spent in unproductive behavior that produces wasted effort and confusing distractions. Lack of clarity creates further confusion. Organizations and leaders alike need to get crystal clear about what is expected of each team member.

Instead, what if the following was heard at your organization? What can I do to solve the problem? How can I help? What can I do to develop myself to help solve problems within the organization? How can I adapt to the changing world?

The current economic environment has ushered in new expectations for leaders – from increased scope of responsibility to heavier workloads, to making decisions in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment. In general, leadership skills and competencies that have always been important are still important today. However, there are some new leadership skills emerging that are even more important. In fact, there is a new importance on a leader’s / manager’s ability to be courageous and to manage conflict – all while remaining patient, approachable team builders. A lion is the image or symbol of exceptional courage and fortitude and as such, the the heart of lion is the perfect symbol for a leader's courage.

What is leadership courage? Leadership courage is the capacity to lead a group of diverse individuals and personalities through challenging times.

This ability or skill called leadership courage includes formulating objective decisions, doing what’s right despite the fact that the decision or change might be unpopular with the people you lead, and possessing the values of self-awareness, humility, trust, confidence, objectivity, and risk-taking.

Accountability drives the ability to execute. Accountability is the engine behind every initiative requiring effective execution. Without personal accountability, efforts to execute usually fail and result in disappointment and frustration. The organization that can execute will be able to impact the business, implement key tactics, be nimble and agile, and further drive results. When individuals take personal ownership of organizational initiatives and can connect their own success with that of the organization, traction is achieved and effective execution occurs. There is movement forward and growth is achieved.

While achieving desired results does require action, activity alone does not produce results. When action is the objective, the result is usually a “culture of activity” with people just going through the motions. Focusing everyone’s work on driving results and having impact creates ownership and accountability, directing efforts towards desired actions produces results without mandate or force.

To Improve Leadership Courage ask yourself these questions on a regular basis (check-in with employees):

  • What is my strategy to address a difficult situation or to interrupt a negative outcome or negative impact?
  • How can I state what I have to say more tactfully?
  • Will I forfeit short-term pain for a long-term benefit to the organization by enforcing an unpopular policy?
  • Have I dealt directly and head-on with a challenging individual instead of sending someone else in to do it or altogether avoiding the situation?
  • Was I poised, calm, prepared, and unemotional in my last uncomfortable confrontation?
  • What situations have I given up on or avoided that I need to re-address and try again?

LC + A = driving Results

Leadership Courage (MC): is the capacity to lead a group of diverse individuals and personalities through challenging times.

Accountability (A): A personal choice to rise above one’s circumstance and demonstrate the ownership and leadership necessary for achieving key results.

The key formula is that it takes leadership courage plus accountability to drive results. There is a challenge to possessing too much leadership courage in that you may be viewed as overly critical, too direct and heavy-handed, focused on the negative rather than a balance of strengths and areas for development, and you may be thought of as picking battles…which will not necessarily help you win the war.

Red Rock - Littleton, CO
Red Rock - Littleton, CO | Source

Let me provide a dramatic example of leadership courage: On June 5, 1944, just hours before D-Day was to begin, General Dwight Eisenhower paid a visit to the paratroopers of the 101st Airborne. He walked among the men, shaking hands, patting them on their backs, cracking jokes and boosting morale. In his pocket, however, he carried a prepared message, taking full responsibility for the mission’s possible failure. He expected the casualty rate to climb as high as 70 percent, yet the decision to move forward with the plan had been made. Late that evening, the future president saluted each plane as it roared off the runway. And then he cried.

Eisenhower knew so many of those brave soldiers, whom he’d praised and pumped up just hours earlier that day, would never return. At that very moment in time, a sacrifice was in the making.

This story provides a classic example of how good leaders must be good actors, specifically proficient in what’s called “situational leadership.” Plain and simple, situational leadership means having the skills and understanding to assess a scenario you’re facing and manage it with the right leadership style and the right level of courage.

For Leaders of Leaders – Ask the following interview questions:

  • Good leaders deal with corrective feedback in a manner that inspires accountability and behavior change among colleagues and direct reports. Share a situation that demonstrates your capability in this competency.
  • Share two examples that demonstrate the fact that you have a commanding presence, yet that presence is not intimidating to others.
  • Tell me about the time when you found it most difficult to deal head-on with people problems. What was the most important factor(s) in your success (or failure)?
  • Sometimes, as leaders, it is necessary to administer or take negative actions. Share two situations that make obvious your ability to swiftly and effectively take negative action. Why was it important to do so?
  • Understanding and appreciating the origins and reasoning behind key policies, practices, and procedures are critical. Describe a situation that demonstrates your skill in this area.

Learn from Others:

  • Learn from those in authority. Choose to imitate the successful behavior of someone you admire. Seek advice and counsel from that individual
  • Obtain feedback from your direct reports. Accept the feedback, say thank you, and see how you can put it into action.
  • Look for the ways to bring out the best in others who may lack skill or experience. Motivate by being a positive force, even in negative situations, and by routinely giving well-thought out feedback.
  • Recognize when you need to try something different…a new approach.

Learning Managerial Courage on the Job:

  • On challenging or controversial topics, clearly state your mind about what your position is and why. Do not remain quiet…share your “voice.”
  • Challenge the process on a proposed plan in an Executive Meeting but leave the meeting united to implement the final agreed upon decision.
  • When executing on behalf of the organization, ensure that you are executing at the highest standard possible.
  • When giving feedback: Be succinct, keep to the facts, and go from specific, to general points.
  • Empathize with others: Demonstrate understanding. Be fair but firm.
  • If a feedback session did not go as well as desired, self-reflect on it afterward. Is there anything you could have / should have done differently?
  • Learning from feedback: Ask for feedback from your director, your colleagues, and your direct reports. Ask: Is there anything I should be doing differently or something I can do better? Then apply the feedback.

When holding tough discussions, realize that it isn’t about fixing anyone…it’s about fighting for someone. This approach is about being in service to…helping them to focus on their strengths and helping them advance. So you must have confidence within before you ever open your mouth. It’s the words that you use…it’s the structure or approach…and it has 3 points.

(a) Say, “it’s critical that we take the next step to improve performance.”

(b) Then state, “Why?” Why is it critical. What is the relationship to where we are now and where we need to be…the impact to the business, the impact to the customers, and the impact to the patients.

(c) To ensure that we are creating ownership, that we show we are in this together (manager and employee), that you have their back…say, “What do you see as the necessary next step in improving performance” or “What do you see as the leadership behavior necessary to move performance forward or for this team to go to the next level?”

In summary, [Leadership] Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; [Leadership] courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen. Winston Churchill

Provide an example of when you demonstrated leadership courage.

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