“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” – Winston Churchill
When I first started writing for Becker’s, I put together a catalog of six key attributes that have been essential to my career success and define my approach to leadership. Over the next few months, I plan to dig a little deeper and reflect on each of these key leadership ingredients. My goal is to examine their value, including how we as leaders can effectively deploy them to raise the performance of ourselves and our teams.
I begin with the crucial component to achieving successful leadership, and one that I ascribe to and work toward each day — courage. For me, there are 10 hallmarks of leading with courage.
1. You ask tough questions and seek honest feedback. As a practitioner of courage, you have to be willing to take a personal inventory regularly and ask the tough questions. These can include:
- What am I bringing to the table?
- What am I leaving behind?
- How can I give more and do better?
- How can I continue to evaluate and improve my performance?
Making these reflections an annual team exercise is an excellent way to put courage into practice. Part of being courageous is soliciting (and hearing) feedback from those on your team as well as your most trusted colleagues.
2. You stand up — and stand alone — when necessary. A key aspect of courage is standing up for what you believe in, particularly when it comes to implementing change or a new idea. A leader must be confident and trust themselves to take a risk, even when filled with self-doubt or concerns over what others may think. Innovation rarely comes through consensus. It requires someone standing up and asking, “What if?” or stating, “We need to do this.”
Standing alone can be scary, but few good things come without risk. Leaders aren’t able to lead if they don’t go for it. You need to be willing to go out on a ledge if you want to drive true innovation.
3. You hold yourself accountable in all you do. Sometimes being courageous is standing up in a room full of fellow team members and simply saying what you think regardless of what others might think or feel. There will be times when you will have to deliver the unpopular news, but being courageous is much more than that. Possessing and, more importantly, implementing courageous practice is the willingness to be personally accountable for all you do and all that you ask of others. You are the first to admit mistakes or change course if needed. You are a realist who embraces the good and faces the bad head on. This means having the courage to be transparent with your team.
4. You facilitate and participate in the tough conversations. To practice courage, you must be able to have those tough conversations — with yourself, with your team members, with your clients and with your stakeholders. It can be daunting to bring up a discussion that will likely result in conflict or acknowledge a conflict that is brewing.
Courageous leaders commend team members when they take this risk of confronting conflict head on. They also model that behavior by doing the same. During problem-solving discussions, ask for criticism of all ideas currently on the table, including ones you have proposed. Move whomever you are working with toward seeing this as productive collaboration.
5. You lead by example. Don’t be afraid to have people look to you. As team leaders, it’s our job to be open and transparent and model this for others.
6. You talk early and often. You keep the lines of communication open and your team in the loop. Even when you don’t have all the answers, you update team members regularly. You share information honestly and in a straightforward way. You don’t hide behind double speak or bury the truth.
7. You take failure in stride. You recognize that you can learn more from failure than success. You also acknowledge that life is a marathon and not a sprint. You have the confidence and the courage to face your failures, learn from them and keep moving.
8. You give credit where credit is due. Courageous leadership means feeling confident enough in your abilities to recognize the contributions of others. You are not threatened by the success of your team; in fact, you embrace it. You provide recognition where recognition is due, shining the spotlight on others rather than yourself.
9. You encourage dissent. As a leader, you encourage your team to disagree with you and with each other as a way to strategically solve problems. But when they do, you look for them to do it openly. Disagreements happen. They are healthy, and they are also productive. Once resolved, they can lead to stronger collaborations and a tighter team. Many leaders feel pressure to have all the answers. By encouraging constructive dissent and healthy debate, you reinforce the strength of the team and demonstrate that in the tension of diverse opinions lies a better solution.
10. You shut it down! When you hear team members complaining outside a meeting or engaging in passive-aggressive behavior, you have the courage to call them on it. You acknowledge the issue, work through them and don’t let them fester.
By leading with courage and setting that example for others, you build a foundation of respect and honesty, making greater loyalty and productivity possible. Hopefully, it will make the tough calls a bit easier to make and the successes even sweeter and more frequent.