I was teaching leadership at a French telecom company several years ago, and the CEO visited on the last day of the program to hear from participants on a topic he gave them earlier. The question was: How can we become more courageous as a company?
I had helped the participants think through what it means to be personally courageous as leaders and how their company, which had not been performing well following the economic crisis, could make a comeback. They addressed leadership in the organization and the culture that had been shaped by the economic crisis and difficult corporate reactions like downsizing, budget cutting and less tolerance for even honest mistakes.
Participants noted how the organization had become reactive rather than proactive and how managers had begun to micromanage and had difficulty making timely decisions without consulting senior leadership.
We discovered senior leaders had stopped talking about where the company was headed and—most important—had stopped challenging the people in the company to innovate, take the initiative, or focus on the customer. This prompted me to examine courageous leadership and develop a program around it.
So what is courageous leadership, and how do leaders demonstrate it in the workplace? First, courage is something that results from knowing who you are and what you value and from being comfortable in your own skin. Leaders who have conviction and a passion for their work find it easier to lead boldly even in the face of difficult, uncertain circumstances. Leaders in organizations demonstrate courage by bringing themselves to their leadership and connecting to people on a personal level. Courageous leaders take smart risks, make bold decisions without complete information, and make hard calls about allocating people and resources.
When I ask what people want from their leaders, I repeatedly hear the same set of behaviors. They want leaders who can make hard decisions about people, strategy and resources. They also respect and follow leaders who will experiment with new approaches, adapt, and learn new practices and methods. Followers are consistent in expecting leaders to make good on promises, even if this comes with a personal cost.
Personal courage is often related to acts of heroism and bravery or larger-than-life figures who run into burning buildings to rescue people. Within organizations, however, courage takes on a different form. It can be better associated with how people deal with increasing uncertainty and complexity in their work.
Become More Courageous
When I initially asked how the French company could be more courageous, the executives looked at each other to see who would go first. The silence in the room was uncomfortable and evidence enough that trust was not part of the culture. They quite literally could not even start the conversation.
Without trust, courageous action is rare, especially down through the organization. People need to trust their leaders to make sense of market and internal uncertainty. They need to trust in the strategic direction of the firm and trust in the team they work on. They need to trust that the company will demonstrate the same loyalty and commitment to its people that they have demonstrated to the company over the years.
Trust is the foundation for courage, and without it, organizations flounder. Leaders build trust in organizations by providing a clear understanding of the firm’s purpose and direction and by following through on commitments. They demonstrate trust in managers and employees by empowering and developing them for more responsibility, and they provide transparency in decision making, especially people decisions involving compensation, promotions, hiring and firing.
The best leaders I’ve known build confidence in others, in teams and across organizations. They are vulnerable, approachable and open in leader-follower relationships, and they boldly empower others while ensuring accountability for performance. They promote innovation, necessary change, experimentation and learning and create an environment where people can take smart risks, share new ideas and make tough decisions about who is on the team and who needs to go.
My French client is still experiencing the uncertainty associated with economic volatility, but the work that was done to clarify the connection between trust and courage was a catalyst for leadership development and cultural change. It altered the focus of subsequent leadership programs and even generated a new definition of leadership in the company. Driving out the inertia of fear in favor of trust and smart change is the first step toward a bold new leadership style.