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What's courageous leadership? It is the courage to be fearless

Rochester Business Journal
September 14, 2012

"We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face. ... We must do that which we think we cannot." 
  -Eleanor Roosevelt
Got courage? Leadership often requires courage.
But what is courage? The word comes from Latin, meaning heart and spirit. Courage permits us to face extreme difficulties or danger without fear; it is bravery in action. Aristotle said courage is the first virtue, because it makes all of the other virtues possible. There are various types of courage such as political courage, moral courage, intellectual courage, personal courage, leadership courage, followership courage, etc. We most often associate courage with physical courage, which we equate with acts of heroism and physical bravado or daring.
But you don't have to be a hero to be courageous. In fact, you can practice "everyday courage" at work as a leader or as a follower.
One can exhibit two types of courage at work: follower courage and leadership courage. We do not typically discuss followership courage, but it is important to the good operation and survival of an organization. By followership courage, I mean the responsibility that followers have to speak up and challenge their bosses when they confront matters that are troubling or that cause them to be uneasy about what is going on.
Followers today do not have to be submissive, compliant and powerless. In fact, it is in their self-interest not to be. Often managers have on blinders or may not have considered a proposed course of action from a different but important perspective. A good follower can help his or her boss by bringing up issues or perspectives that were overlooked.
Courageous followers can also help their bosses in another important way. They can actually help their boss to become a better boss! By having the courage to offer counsel and mentorship to the boss, a follower can play a role in developing her boss. By sharing a different view of events, followers can help their boss value diverse opinions and be more open to difference. Courageous followers can forge a partnership with the boss, particularly if they have strengths in areas where the boss is not particularly strong.
Leaders need to have the courage to allow their followers to have the power and authority to give them honest feedback and to share thoughts and opinions about the leader's actions or proposed actions. In fact, courageous leaders actively solicit feedback from their followers and create a climate of trust in which their followers know they can speak freely. Courageous leaders also need to challenge the status quo and outdated rituals. They are able to confront uncomfortable situations and act in the face of fear, knowing that they will never have perfect information.
Courageous leaders have the courage to admit that they were wrong and to move forward without blaming others for their own mistakes. In fact, they allow their followers to make mistakes without recrimination as long as the followers learn in the process and do not repeat the same mistake. They have the courage to make the tough decisions, like discharging an unproductive or destructive worker or customer. They act on faith, even when others counsel them not to act or to take a different action that the leader does not believe is the right course. Courageous leaders believe in themselves and accept the responsibility that "the buck stops here," with them.
Courageous leaders have:
Purpose. They are clear in who they are and what they believe.
Passion. They are intimately in touch with the passions that drive them.
Principles. They are confident in where they stand and what they have to offer the world.
Power. They execute with competence, which leads to great impact, which in turn leads to power.
In troubled economic times, it is the courageous leaders and followers-people who can look beyond the obvious way things are done, who can see new ways to serve the customer and do business differently-who have moved their companies forward in spite of the poor economy. They have the courage to take risks and be innovative in spite of the economic circumstances they face.
How can you be more courageous at work?
First, decide that you want to be more courageous. Realize that courage is a choice, and choose to be fearless. Speak up when you feel uncomfortable about something or see wrongdoing. Do not "go along to get along." Decide not to support bad behavior by a colleague, and refuse to go along with the crowd if you have a different opinion. Be honest with yourself, and do not be afraid to be honest with others. Reflect before you act or attend meetings, and ask for help when you need it. Speak up if gossip is wrong or gets nasty. Confront bullies when you see co-workers being abused.
Small acts of everyday courage add up to courageous leadership for both leaders and followers. Courageous followers are, in fact, courageous leaders!
Remember, companies facing troubled times need both leaders and followers to exhibit everyday courage.
"I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear."
  -Nelson Mandela
dt ogilvie is dean of the E. Philip Saunders College of Business at Rochester Institute of Technology. This column is based on a talk she gave to the Xerox Black Women's Leadership Council 2012 Summit on July 20.9/14/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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