Throughout the ages, people have searched for the precise alchemy of ingredients that constitute great leadership. In measured proportions, great leaders are said to demonstrate bold but reasoned judgment, spirited but calculated risk-taking and an assertive but reflective disposition. Complicating the matter are the expectations and needs of those being led. Followers want leaders who make decisions decisively but inclusively, interpret situations with rational and emotional intelligence and exude confidence and humility.
The list of characteristics that comprise great leadership is so long and contradictory, that the aspiring leader is left to ask, “Where on earth do I start?” Fortunately, there is a clear starting point. One leadership characteristic—or more accurately, virtue—informs and strengthens all others: Courage.
Aristotle called courage the first virtue, because it makes all of the other virtues possible. In addition to being the most important human virtue, it is the most important business virtue, as well. Think about it: Other important business concepts like leadership, innovation and sales wither in the absence of courage. Leadership takes making bold and often unpopular decisions. Leadership takes courage. Innovation involves creating ground-breaking but tradition-defying ideas. Innovation takes courage. Sales requires being repeatedly rejected before closing a deal. Sales takes courage. Take away courage, and sales, innovation and leadership lose their potency.
Contrary to popular belief, courage is a teachable and learnable skill, and most everyone has the capacity to be courageous. Moreover, nearly all courageous acts represent one or more of three types of courage:
TRY Courage: The courage of initiative and action— making first attempts, pursuing pioneering efforts and stepping up to the plate
TRUST Courage: The courage of confidence in others— letting go of the need to control situations or outcomes, having faith in people and being open to direction and change
TELL Courage: The courage of voice— raising difficult issues, providing tough feedback and sharing unpopular opinions
The good news is everyone has the capacity for being courageous. I know this firsthand. From an early age, I’ve had a gripping fear of heights. What did I do about this fear? I became a high diver! Fear is an invitation to courage, and I accepted the invitation. Over a long period of time—and by trying, trusting and telling courage—I was able to dominate my fear of heights instead of letting it dominate me. Though I remain afraid of heights, I was able to master my fear enough to perform more than 1,500 high dives from heights that scaled to over 100 feet.
I long ago traded my Speedo for a business suit, and these days I devote my life to helping people and organizations be more courageous. The most important lesson my clients have taught me is that the entire workforce wins when everyone shows up to work each day with more courage. With less fear and more courage, workers take on harder projects, deal better with change and speak up more willingly about important issues. In short, courageous workers try more, trust more and tell more. As a business leader and entrepreneur, your job is to put courage inside of people— to encourage them. By applying the three different types of courage, as well as the tips above, courage can be put to good use in your own workplace.
Want to learn more about courage and how to take risks? Look for the upcoming issue of Octane, to be distributed in December. Bill writes about the importance of risk-taking and how to determine which risks are right for you.