Originally Published August 13, 2018
Martin Luther King Jr. once talked about courageous leadership in this way:
“Courage faces fear and thereby masters it. Cowardice represses fear and is thereby mastered by it. Courageous men never lose the zest for living even though their life situation is zestless; cowardly men, overwhelmed by the uncertainties of life, lose the will to live. We must constantly build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.”
Powerful words to be sure. If it were only that easy. When we are honest with ourselves, the ability to “build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear” maybe one of the greatest challenges to our personal and professional success.
Yet overcoming fear is only one of many factors that may keep us from leading with courage. Others include fatigue, uncertainty, a concern for what others may think about us, a lack of clear vision and purpose. And certainly more. You can add your own.
We often think of courageous leaders as superstars or industry and business titans who just pressed forward, able to take risks, with little or no self-doubt. While that may be true for a select few, it’s not the story that many courageous leaders would tell.
A Church Contrarian at Sixteen
As a 16 year old, I remember being the only person in a church congregational meeting who voted against a very important motion. The details aren’t all that important. I just remember that in order to voice my opposition to something I believed was wrong, I literally had to stand up to express my opposition. It was both terrifying and yet in some ways affirming – especially in hindsight.
To my surprise, my position was affirmed by others who had believed the same way I did, but apparently, they were intimidated and fearful of going against the crowd. While I hardly considered myself a leader in that context, that formative experience taught me that others can be encouraged to find their own voice, and their own courage, when they see it in someone else.
In a recent conversation with a university president, we talked about courageous leadership – what it meant and how to develop and tone our leadership muscles. My colleague noted that in his experience, there is a strong connection between thought, word and action. A courageous leader must sharpen their listening skills, be committed to building consensus, and ultimately having the confidence to make the hard decisions without fear. He noted that boldness must be balanced with a humility - to listen carefully to those who have wisdom and insight and to adjust as new information emerges or circumstances change. For this leader, being grounded in faith, drawing on experience and hearing one’s colleagues are all essentials to building the leadership muscle.
Some things to think about...
Do you consider yourself a courageous leader? What have you learned about courage in leadership from others whom you trust? What might you do this week, this month, the rest of this year to build your courageous leadership muscles?
There may be a tough decision that you are facing that requires courage, even this week. Are you able to find that inner strength, even it means facing criticism, personal loss, or other consequences?
Tell us what you’ve found helpful in honing your skills and leaning into courageous leadership.
Learning from the example of others can itself be a powerful tool to building our strength as courageous leaders.
Please share your thoughts in the comment section below, or e-mail me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org