Courage As Fuel: Leading & Living As If It Really Mattered

A look at the heart of leadership and what it takes to make it happen.

America is branded in song as the “Home of the Brave,” but we are currently living in a culture of fear-based thinking.  Anxiety (fear in clinical terms) is the most common mental illness in the United States affecting about 40 million Americans!  Feelings of insecurity and the lack of courage are especially problematic in business, leading to being blindsided due to a lack of the courage to confront or to be confronted or to difficulty learning from mistakes, seeing the current reality or taking the necessary actions.  A few examples of where the lack of courage hurts: business start-ups are at an all time low, CEOs fail and are fired primarily due to a lack of “emotional strength” to either confront a colleague or to be confronted with bad news down in the trenches (See Fortune Magazine Archive June 1999 Feature Article “Why CEO’s Fail’) and many executives are shocked or feel blindsided by the feedback they receive on their leadership impact when employees are given the opportunity to deliver honest feedback anonymously, and the list goes on.  Over the past thirty-three years of consulting I have never seen a case of an executive or business failing or getting in trouble due to a lack of intelligence; every failure has been one of insufficient emotional intelligence, primarily COURAGE.

Soichiro Honda, the father of Honda Motor Company, said he built his company on the willingness to make mistakes, learn from them and then to press on to new mistakes from which to learn and move forward.  Mary Kay Ash, founder of the Mary Kay organization, talked about “failing forward” which required the courage to risk, daring to act, and when making mistakes to actively help self and others learn and celebrate that process as growth.  Yet, many executives either won’t delegate key responsibilities out of the fear one of their reports might “make a mistake” or “not do it as well as I want it done.”  Employees, in turn, are afraid of making mistakes, focusing instead on the status quo versus what it would take to help the enterprise step up, actively learn and improve.  People with some great ideas and dreams stay in dead-end jobs or jobs they dislike out of fear of change or of being rejected or of failing in a new career or start up.

CEOs and Owners, as well as executives, need to know about and exercise the key ACTS of Courage required if they are to survive let alone thrive, over the long term.  What are these acts of courage?  The critical ones for business are the Courage to dream and express the dream, to see current reality, to confront, to be confronted, to learn and grow, to be vulnerable and finally to act.  The courage to dream is that of staking out a future role, of creating a sense of future-pull. Proverbs states, “Without a vision, the people perish.”  People have a visceral need to feel they are working to achieve something meaningful and to put a “ding in the Universe” as Steve Jobs expressed it.  The fear of putting a dream out there and then failing to achieve it, of falling flat stops many from its creation.  The courage to see current reality has the guts to see strengths, weaknesses; key gaps and what are working both for and against you, without making excuses.  The courage to confront is “telling the truth to power” as the Quakers put it.  Without this, you have no voice, no real power, and this is one of the major weaknesses in corporate America today.  The courage to be confronted, to hear someone else’s truth and perspective is sorely lacking in corporate as well as political America at the moment, leading to extreme partisanship, break-downs, defensiveness and the guarantee of being blind-sided at work as well as living.  The courage to learn and grow is the willingness to take the risk of stepping into the unknown to go beyond the “comfort zone” of what is known, the status quo.  It is also the emotional strength to let go of any “addiction” to being “right.”  It is the willingness to be curious and open to new insights and perspectives.

You can easily see why the five acts of courage above are critically important to being successful long-term as an executive, owner, CEO or even as a valued employee.  There is another act of courage that is at least as important as all of those, and it is the Courage to Be Vulnerable.  Brene Brown in her viral TED Talk outlines the importance of this act of courage if you are to live a life of value, of love, to be able to innovate.  This is the courage to say, “I don’t know” or “I need help” or “I can’t get this done without you.”  It was the emotional strength in the words of CEO Max Dupree when he was leading the Herman Miller Corporation, “to be open and present to the wild ideas, the strengths, the talents and the perspectives of others.”  It is the courage to really let go of the illusion of control and to step into the dynamic of a true, living, learning organization and more effective as well as joyful ways of living and leading.

If you are employing the prior six acts of courage, then finally, the courage to act means you are willing to step out, to “put yourself in harm’s way” as the military expresses it.  However, when you access and use the prior acts of courage, you then ACT with wisdom and greater insights about your self, your team, employees, enterprise, customers and, yes, your world.

The act of courage that you have least developed will be your Achilles Heel that will keep you limping, stumbling versus reaching full stride.  And, since an organization is a step-down reflection of the quality of leadership being provided and modeled, where you lack courage is reflected in your work culture and through the teams and employees that comprise it.  Where do you most need to develop courage now if you are to be at your best?  Which acts of courage are least developed in how your organization functions?  Will you access the heart, the guts, to honestly assess strengths, gaps, weaknesses, and opportunities in your self and your enterprise?  What are you waiting for, after all, in the words of FDR, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Robert (Dusty) Staub: Author, Executive Coach, Keynote Speaker on  Training.

Best Selling Author of The 7 Acts of Courage and The Heart of leadership  and

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