Uncovering the Inner Lion: The Importance of Courage in Leadership

At a recent CIC meeting I asked a couple of presidents what they thought was the most important characteristic of today’s leader.

Their response? Courage.

I was surprised. I had been expecting words like “ethical” or “consensus builder” or “visionary.”

But the more I thought about it the more I realized that wisdom was afoot.

Stephen Trachtenberg, former president of George Washington University, once said, “American universities tend to have a full supply of wisdom and a short supply of courage.”

Sensing a trend, I looked at the idea of courage and came across Susan Tardanico. In a recent Forbes article she outlined a handful of attributes of courageous leaders:[1]

  1. Confront reality head-on. Ditch the rose-colored glasses and face the facts about the state of your organization (and the marketplace).
  2. Seek feedback and listen. We all have blind spots that impact the way we interact with others. Unfiltered 360-degree feedback is not always easy to hear, but it can breathe new life into your relationships and leadership style if you listen and act.
    1. Bob comment: Don’t surround yourself with people who always agree with you. Diversity of opinions is critical.
  3. Say what needs to be said. Real conversations can be awkward and uncomfortable, especially if conflict is involved. This also means having the courage to put your opinions on the table, even if they are unpopular.
  4. Encourage pushback. Many leaders feel pressure to have all the answers. By encouraging constructive dissent and healthy debate, you reinforce the strength of the team and demonstrate that in the tension of diverse opinions lies a better answer.
    1. Bob comment: Thesis, antithesis, synthesis.[2]
  5. Communicate openly and frequently. Keep the lines of communication open. Courageous leaders refuse to hide behind jargon and wiggle words—they use straight talk and are not afraid to say “I don’t know.” They also share information instead of hoarding it.
    1. Bob comment: Information is powerful, but it is most powerful when it is shared.
  6. Lead change. In fear-based environments, it’s all about protecting the status quo. Envision a better way, a better solution, and a better product—and approach it with determination and an open mind, knowing that it will be messy and that a mid-course correction may be necessary.
    1. Bob comment: By almost any measure, the current model of higher education is in trouble: Too much cost and too little revenue. We are heading into a period of (re)alignment. The schools that recognize this need will have the best chance of success.
  7. Make decisions and move forward. Especially in environments of fear and intense change, it might feel unsafe to commit to a decision and move ahead. Avoid the crutch of “analysis paralysis” and make the decision. Forward movement is always better than being stuck in place.
    1. Bob comment: A client once said, “We have a big data problem”. I responded, “No, I think you have a big unwillingness to make decisions based on the data you have problem.” Just decide.
  8. Hold people (and yourself) accountable. Expect people to perform and deliver on their commitments, and have courage to call them out when they don’t follow through. Remember that accountability begins with you (the leader)—holding yourself responsible for modeling the behaviors you expect of others.
    1. Bob comment: It is interesting everyone wants to be involved in decisions but doesn’t want to take responsibility for those decisions. Own up.

I want to close with a final quote: Courage unused dissipates.

[1] http://www.forbes.com/sites/susantardanico/2013/01/15/10-traits-of-courageous-leaders/

[2] Often attributed to German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel never used the term himself. More likely first penned by Immanuel Kant.

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2 Comments
  1. Wayne Wormley

    Courage appears to be a scarce commodity these days.

  2. Ginny Coombs

    Great article! Yes courage in campus leaders is in short supply, but it is out there.

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