Courage: The Ultimate Challenge of Leadership

It’s not uncommon to chat about leadership with my sisters. While we all work in different fields, we all find how we work with others more effectively to be incredibly intriguing. We see many commonalities in our work with others because working with people, helping them reach their highest potential, supporting their efforts, and acknowledging their hard work isn’t all that different, regardless of the professional field. Over the years we’ve shared insights, challenges, successes, and of course…books. We all love to read and I’d go as far as saying we’ve been in our own exclusive book club for most of our lives.

This week I read Michael Fullan’s book Nuance: Why Some Leaders Succeed and Others Fail. It was an excellent read and I can’t recommend it strongly enough if you are a student of leadership and aspire to be an excellent leader. As I shared some of my learning with my sister over a phone call, I found myself coming back to what I have found to be one of the greatest challenges for leaders: courage. It’s no secret that leaders are charged with making hard decisions, conducting courageous conversations, and nudging folks beyond their comfort zones. This is incredibly difficult work, and making sure your nudge is seen as well intentioned and a result of your caring about the folks you serve as a person and professional can be tough.

Human nature is one that responds well to routine, predictability, and comfort. When we are pushed beyond this, it’s natural for us to resist-and that resistance can manifest in a variety of ways: explicit refusal, indirect avoidance, an uptick in anxiety, or paralysis. And we name this in different ways, feeling overwhelmed is a common one. For those of us who are leaders, our challenge is to not let these facets of human nature drive our efforts. When we are challenged with leading others to a new level of performance, shifting a culture, or achieving their highest potential, it’s not hard to succumb to a sense of empathy that alters our leadership. What we know we need to do gets tangled up with what others feel about what we are asking of them, and we lose the ownership of leading others through these tough and challenging places. Our challenge as leaders isn’t to disregard what others feel, but to help them move forward in spite of what they feel. We do this when we acknowledge the difficulty in something and accompany that acknowledgment with an affirming confidence in their ability to achieve it. It might sound something like this: “I know this is really hard and a big shift in the way we’ve always done things, but I also know you are more than capable of doing this. I believe in you and I am going to help you get through this. You can do it.”

But far too often I’ve watched leaders struggle with how to respond to the difficulty of change and people’s reactions to it. Their empathy turns into sympathy and they change their expectations or shift the need for change to those above them, losing all ownership of the very things they are trying to implement. One thing is for sure-when you don’t own the change you’re in charge of leading, neither will the folks you serve. Courageous leaders operate differently. They acknowledge feelings of others, but they are willing to endure the process of change, and understand that shifting anything-a culture, a practice, a perspective, is a process. It is a long and arduous process, and to shift anything you must stay with it long enough for it to move. Leaders who lack courage quit too soon, give in too early, or become inconsistent rather than persistent, because they lack the stamina that courage requires.

Courage is born in the moments when we decide to not give up or give in, even when things feel hard, difficult, or uncomfortable. It is our ability to “stay with it” that is the ultimate test of our leadership. This development of endurance takes practice. It isn’t something we acquire when given an opportunity to lead. Like a marathon runner, we must train, pushing ourselves for ourselves, so that when the time comes, we can continue without faltering. As leaders, having a strong sense of who we are and what we believe is instrumental in the development of courage. When we know what we believe and what we stand for, we can demonstrate a strength that supports us in moments of struggle. For in the end, it is not our intelligence, our charisma, or our abilities that get us to the victory line, but our steadfast courage that will carry us all the way there.

Until next time, be you. Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

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