Courage and leadership

Some of the bravest people I know turn timid when managing others. My good friend thinks nothing of bungee jumping off a zillion-mile high train bridge but when dealing with his direct reports gets a little squishy. I’ve noticed in all the talk about leadership of late that there’s a renewed focus on listening, sharing, devolving authority to others, and empowering employees.This is all great and good as long as the leader is not hermetically sealed in the protective wrap of positional power, as long as the leader is open to honest self-refection, and as long as the leader has the courage to see the world through a wider lens of appreciation.

I’ve witnessed leadership courage in many and it looks like the following:

ONE: It’s being able to say “I don’t know.” It’s not thinking that positional power requires an answer to everything and knowledge about all things. It’s being able to admit to others that information is evolving at an exponential rate–that it is not weakness or failure on your part not to be a human version of Google. “I don’t know” is honesty, and “let’s find out” is openness.

TWO: It’s been able to ask, “what do you think?” Many studies I see share the same lament from employees–that they are rarely asked for their opinion. Courageous leadership means not fearing that a question to others, especially those reporting to you, is revealing  your stupidity and ignorance. Quite the opposite. It is a display that you value others, that you acknowledge and respect those who indeed likely know more than you on certain topics (that why you have them around), and that you too are willing to grow and learn.

THREE: It’s being able to admit “I’m not good at this.” The “great man theory” of leadership and out-dated transactional leadership was all about leading the charge up the mountain with a dagger in your teeth and the power of Hercules. It is very liberating to admit to especially yourself that you are not good at everything, and that you are not the be-all and end-all of knowledge, skill, and ability. It’s okay to ask for help. It’s important to know both strengths and limitations and that inner strength actually grows from admitting weaknesses.

FOUR: It’s being able to respectfully challenge those more powerful. A quick way to lose trust with employees is to be seen as the lackey for upper management. There are times when protective barriers must be erected against decisions cascading down from on-high like a nasty avalanche of ill-considered debris. Yes, it’s important to follow chains of command and common sense protocol in expressing opinions, but to roll over and “just follow orders” is a sure way of instantly evaporating trust.

FIVE: It’s being able to change your mind and direction. It’s said most change efforts fail. My view is that most processes of change fail because of a “damn the torpedoes,” rigid, and calcified mindset that refuses to accept that the mountain you’re intending to climb has turned into a volcano. Too many leaders believe that changing their position is a sign of weaknesses. Instead, it is a great show of strength: the power to understand, evaluate, and re-align.

SIX: It’s being able to admit you’re wrong…and/or systems and process are wrong. Fear of looking stupid or ignorant keeps most leaders from admitting that they are wrong. It’s also fear that times are changing and that all they have accomplished or stand for is now ready for the next evolutionary step. Many workplaces have a climate of mistrust and low morale. Often the chief cause is a reluctance to admit that entrenched systems supporting outdated structures are the root cause. And so instead of changing structures and systems we have a workshop on being nice to each other.

SEVEN: It’s being willing to learn something new. Our brain’s ability, indeed desire, for learning is what has brought us this far on the evolutionary ladder. Neuroscience shows that the plasticity of our neurons and various synaptic connections are not as hard-wired as previously thought.  Indeed regardless of advancing age we can learn complex concepts. And we can show great courage by taking the most fearful journey of all–that of personal exploration.

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