The Courage to Lead
I’ve lost track of the number of conversations I’ve had recently around the tough business environment we’re all facing. Companies are having to do more with less; small businesses are suffering; entrepreneurs are casting off dreams; government and education are cutting programs; non-profits have lost their funding; and the number of extraordinarily talented individuals in transition that I’ve met, who are losing faith in themselves, is heartbreaking. And I can totally relate. Growing a company these days is a bit like channeling Sisyphus. You spend what feels like an eternity pushing your giant boulder uphill, only to watch it roll back down, again, and again, and again…
Times are hard! Times are scary! Poor us!
I work with people who want to be great leaders. Some of them already are great leaders (which is what brings them to the space – they’re the ones who never stop learning and growing). Some of them aspire to be great (which is half the game). And some of them can’t see how great they already are. So I’m really lucky. The people I get to spend time with inspire the heck out of me.
No matter where my participants fall along the continuum, like the rest of us humans, they’re facing scary times. It’s not an easy time to be a leader. People are afraid. They look to their leaders to make them feel better. When the leaders are afraid too, it makes for a very unsettling environment. Who will “save the day” if we’re all afraid?
Oh. I’m not supposed to tell, am I? We’re supposed to pretend that leaders aren’t afraid. We’re supposed to pretend that under their cool exterior they’re not quaking in their boots about their future. We’re supposed to pretend that they don’t struggle with insecurity, or doubt, or ambivalence. But they do.
We all do.
What separates the leaders from everyone else is that they show up anyway. They’re afraid and they don’t let that stop them.
Leadership has nothing to do with a title. There are a lot of people out there with big fancy titles that nobody wants to follow. But in these scary times, what are the leadership qualities that spark a “following”? What makes people want to give their very best? What makes people want to give their business? What makes people want to follow?
I believe that leaders are the captains of the world – when the ship is sailing for the rocks, they’re the ones who are fighting to turn it around. They bring the courage to ford even the toughest storms, in spite of their own fears. Turning disaster into possibility, failure into opportunity, and despair into hope. Courage.
The word courage comes from the Old French word,” corage”, which comes from “cuer”, meaning “heart”. In business, it’s not cool to talk about “heart”. It’s soft. There’s no room for “heart” in our tough, strategy-driven, fight-to-win culture. And yet it’s acceptable to insist that our leaders are courageous. I’m thinking perhaps we’ve been talking out of both sides of our mouth. Be courageous – but don’t show heart. A bit of a contradiction, don’t you think?
Thomas J. Watson, Sr., the guy who took IBM from a company that had $9 million in revenue and 1300 employees, and transformed it into an $897 million business with 72,500 employees, once said: “You have to put your heart in the business and the business in your heart.”
And yet so often we leave heart out of the equation. Heart. Cuer. The foundation for courage.
These days, maybe more than ever, we need great leaders – leaders with the courage to show up, in the face of fear, with heart. I’m not saying that it’s easy. But try it. They just might follow you anywhere.
©OnStage Leadership, 2010 (re-posted in 2014)
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Kimberly Davis is the Founder/Director of OnStage Leadership, a full-day experiential leadership workshop. Click here to read what people are saying!
Want to grow your courage? Join us at our upcoming session of OnStage Leadership: Dallas, TX – July 24; NYC, Fall 2014 (date tbd).