“Courage” has its root in the French word, coeur, meaning “heart.” It remains a common metaphor for inner strength, frequently used broadly for “what is in one’s mind or thoughts.” Courageous leaders find resolve to determine action in a crisis and take a position in a debate. Otherwise there is no moving forward and confusion will demoralize the people in the organization. To Winston Churchill, “courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities…because it is the quality which guarantees all others.”
In biblical perspective, it is apparent that courage is an indispensable leadership virtue. Leading in crises or momentous times can be disheartening and discouraging. These are occasions when it seems the cause is lost and the future bleak. Many are quick to give opinions, but few are willing to assume responsibility for leading change. People walk out when their own interests cannot be fulfilled, but true leaders find the courage to stay and make changes so that others can be blessed.
Leaders need to demonstrate courage most at these two critical points of decisions:
Direction for the Future
In both success and crisis, leaders need to take their organizations into the future. There are always conflicting evidences and dissenting voices seeking to influence decisions on future direction. There can be different interpretations of the same data, motivated by vested interests. In a season of dazzling success, the temptation is to repeat or expand the formula that resulted in triumph and fill the future with “more of the same.” When organizations are challenged in vision and resources, they are most inclined to look over the fence and be seduced into replicating others’ successful models. It’s all about mechanics and methodology in searching out a winning formula, never mind if there is a cultural or vocational fit. This is where leaders are tempted to exchange form for substance, and en route to the future, risk a hollowing out of the organization, losing its vision and raison d’être.
Leaders need the courage to remain faithful to their vision
Leaders need the courage to remain faithful to their vision, which is the rudder that determines the direction to go from hence. Bill Hybels defines vision as “a picture of the future that produces passion.” It entails two components: firstly, the calling of the leader in response to specific needs, and secondly, the energizing compulsion in the leader’s being towards fulfilling that call. If the calling came from God, the fire of passion in the leader’s heart will not wane. To the contrary, the leader is infectiously excited by the vision and inspires and mobilizes others to join him in realizing the vision. Gregg Thompson, the President of Bluepoint Leadership Development says that “great leaders know that there cannot be genuine power without courage – the courage to act.” William Wilberforce took on the cause of the abolition of slavery in 1787, and kept true to that vision through the repeated failures in the British Parliament until it prevailed in 1833 with the Slavery Abolition Act, just before he died. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years while he held tight to the vision of anti-apartheid and acted on that vision till his cause ended in victory. The vision and the call prescribed the path to the future. It requires courage to discern and declare that vision, and to follow that vision into the future, ignoring distractions and overcoming obstacles.
There is no guarantee that leaders will remain effective and courageous. Max DePree reveals that he has learnt that “leaders are fragile precisely at the point of their strengths, liable to fail at the height of their success. A leader’s ability to be faithful, especially in relation to the vision and strategy of the institution, is a perpetually open question.” Maybe that is why Scriptures constantly remind leaders to “be strong and courageous.”
Discernment of People
Leaders work with people. Where there are no people, there are no leaders. Perhaps the most critical decisions leaders make are concerning people. A leader I admire deeply observed, “We hire for competence, but we fire for relational reasons.” That was a most profound observation that has proven true in almost every recruitment and release of staff in organizations. We look for competencies in the people we hire so they can perform. But, social dislocations cause discontent and disgruntlement. Even an incompetent worker is fired only when his co-workers express frustration with his slack. The non-performer is already expelled by the community in the organization before his employment is terminated.
Effective leaders understand that their “fundamental purpose, the reason for being, is to enlarge the lives of others.” It takes courage to make people decisions beyond performance criteria and the bottom line, and seek to provide meaning to life, not just means to make a living. Max DePree asks, “What is it most of us really want from work? …We would like a work process and relationships that meet our personal needs for belonging, for contributing, for meaningful work, for the opportunity to make a commitment, for the opportunity to grow and be at least reasonably in control of our own destinies.” Leaders must realize that people will not contribute fully until they get what they need from their leaders. When leaders find the courage to care for their followers they build trust, which inspires people to give their best to fulfil corporate goals.
Noel Tichy and Warren Bennis consider “a contextually informed decision making process” the essence and core of leadership. “With good judgement, little else matters. Without it, nothing else matters.” Leaders make strategic decisions in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty, conflicting demands and under the pressure of time. No wonder we need God’s Presence and Power to be strong and courageous to make the critical decisions on future directions and people. It is this keen sense of judgement that makes or breaks a leader.
This article “Leading with Courage” by Peter Chao was first published in the Nov-Dec 2010 issue of Eagles VantagePoint magazine (www.vantagepoint.com.sg). Used with permission.