Articles

Enabling Courage

August 10, 2016 - By Wendy Lambourne, Director, MA Industrial and Organisation Psychology Registered Psychologist with SA Medical & Dental Council

reward

As part of a leadership programme at a Legitimate Leadership client in the manufacturing industry, I was afforded the opportunity to facilitate a conversation about the role of courage in leadership with a group of managers working in first line supervisory roles.

This was not a conversation about romantic notions of courage exercised in the pursuit of lofty ideals. It was a conversation about the practical role that courage, or lack thereof, plays in the every day job of leading a shift of operators in a technical manufacturing environment.

In the context of the Legitimate Leadership Model, courage is very specifically defined as being one of two possible forms of giving, the other being generosity.

Of the two, courage is the harder to get right.

This is because being generous involves rising above a loss of things. The worst that can potentially happen is a loss of some material wealth – but in many cases, generosity requires nothing more than a spirit of gratitude.

Being courageous involves much more risk as there is usually an issue at play which presents the possibility of real and serious consequences if the act of courage is carried out. What the person stands to lose makes acting courageously difficult, and for some, impossible.

During our time together this group of managers arrived at four insights about the role of courage in their leadership positions:

    1. You cannot act with courage if you are not able to come to terms with what you are afraid of.
      An act cannot be considered courageous unless there is a perception of risk; something to lose. In each interaction or act where courage is appropriate, self interest is really about avoiding that potential loss.  If you don’t want to discipline a subordinate because you are afraid of a grievance being lodged or the union getting involved, that is self interest.  If you won’t tell your boss he/she is not being supportive because you are  afraid you will be victimised, that is self interest. If you won’t tell a hostile, combative colleague that his/her behaviour is unacceptable because you don’t want to have a row with him/her, that is self interest.   In each of these instances the capacity to overcome the self interest in each situation is courage. If you are finding it difficult to do something you know should be done, or you find yourself putting it off, it is useful to identify the emotion you feel when thinking about it.  If anxiety or fear is part of the emotion it is likely preservation of self interest is at play.  Identify what your self interest is, and then question it.
    2. Courage is a critical part of being a good leader, but businesses often don’t cultivate real courage in the workplace.
      Most companies will talk about the virtue of honesty, openness and/or even courage somewhere in their values statements, but few companies deliberately call attention to or encourage the behaviours implied by the values conversation about what these behaviours actually look like.  For many businesses the opposite is in fact true.  Managers are told to “toe the line”, not to “rock the boat”, and not to say anything that would be “career limiting”.  The message people actually get is that cowardice, compromise and expediency is what is really appreciated, not the behaviours associated with the values. People wind up telling each other what they want to hear, not what they need to hear.  The dangerous consequences of this is that managers either ignore the real issues or pretend they don’t exist.  When this is what is happening in the business, something is about to go very wrong.
    3. In leadership, acting with courage means so much more than disciplining people. The often-quoted example of courage is the “difficult conversation”, usually with a subordinate whose behaviour requires a disciplinary response.  On examining the seven possible things a leader can give his/her people, the group concluded that courage is actually required in all of them, namely:

      Caring
      about your people requires courage in making yourself vulnerable in the process of developing a close relationship with your people, admitting mistakes, acknowledging shortcomings, and going into someone’s personal space when you feel he/she needs help.Providing means to your people requires courage to challenge policies and standards; to challenge your boss or colleagues; to fight for the resources your team needs. Handing over authority to someone else also requires trust and involves risk, and therefore courage.Cultivating ability requires the courage to coach others to the point where you are replaceable, and having the courage to push someone to reach their potential even if it is uncomfortable.Praising and rewarding people requires the courage to spend money on doing so when it is unpopular to do so, and being prepared to single out exceptional performers for reward instead of just rewarding the “herd”.Censuring and disciplining your people requires the courage to overcome a fear of not being liked or respected, or being prepared to accept feeling guilty about firing someone.
    4. Courage it not a matter of ability, it is a matter of the will, but exercising it gets easier with practice.
      A lack of courage is not something that can be fixed by focusing on ability – it is a matter of the will.  In order to act courageously you have to know what you are prepared to stand for.  Knowing what you stand for makes it possible, but it does not make it easy.  The more courageous acts you perform, even small ones, the easier it gets to act with courage.  It also helps to talk with colleagues and bosses about acts of leadership courage, and to recognise or reward people who act with courage.

The environment you are in can potentially stifle courage, but whether there is cowardice in the self has far more serious implications for evidence of courage in the workplace.  If you focus on one thing, it should be to cultivate courage in yourself and others.  If you do this, courageous acts will happen, regardless of whether the environment itself is conducive to courage.

Wendy Lambourne
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