Annabel Beerel


Why Do Leaders Need Courage?

Recently I was a keynote at a Women’s Leadership Summit in New Hampshire. The theme of the Conference was “The Courage to Lead.” In anticipation of the event, being an avid reader and a teacher of leadership, I searched my fairly extensive personal library of leadership books for ideas on the topic. To my astonishment very, very little is written on leadership and courage. In fact, in many of my texts, including a 787 page book put out by a prestigious university entitled “Handbook on Leadership,” there was not one entry on courage! In consternation I thought maybe I should extend my search to synonyms for courage such as bravery, valor, fortitude, and so on… Other than an odd sentence included almost in passing here or there, most of the leadership books I searched had zero entries on courage or its synonyms! Now what does one make of that?

I suppose one might ask: Why do leaders need courage? Or what has leading got to do with courage? Let us think about this for a moment. For starters exercising leadership is a very difficult business. Leadership is about taking people to new places. Leadership is about change and change we know is something that by and large people struggle with. Besides dealing with people’s resistance to change, leaders need to know that the change they are initiating is good change. A “good” change is an appropriate change; one that responds to changing reality and not a change that promotes a fantasy reality or a change that keeps them in power. Effective leadership therefore requires foresight and insight, and certainly strength of character. A critical attribute of someone who has a strong character is the capacity for courage. Following this line of reasoning we might reasonably conclude that courage is an essential component of leadership.

The Challenges of Leadership

Another way we might look at the leadership and courage issue is that leaders are out there. They are highly visible. They are expected to make difficult decisions. They are blamed if many think they made bad decisions or if people do not like the outcome of those decisions. When people get mad enough about the consequences of certain decisions, leaders are personally attacked, if not physically, then certainly verbally. How can leaders withstand these responses without courage?

Let us set aside the behavior of others for a moment and look at the leader’s own inner world. It is only natural given the role that leaders assume that they must face many fears. For example: fear of failure; fear of making a mistake; fear of losing popularity and fear of losing power. Then there is fear of public humiliation; fear of being upstaged; fear of not having all the answers. Many must fear being blamed; fear being overtaken or superseded. Leaders are likely to fear being alone; fear being betrayed; fear being second best; and fear having to forsake their goals. In denial of these fears some leaders set themselves up as being perfect, indestructible, talented and self-sufficient. This image management is exhausting and adds one more fear to the list which is the fear that other people will see through their charade.

Do We Run Towards or Away From our Fears?

After the devastating Boston Patriot’s Day bombing it was interesting to note that people reflected on their behavior that day. They spoke about whether they ran away from danger or towards it.  This is an interesting question for all of us, not just for people in formal leadership roles. Do we run away from danger, namely that which we fear, or do we run towards it?

Sadly, if we take organizational life, the greatest danger we face in that realm is not the tsunami, tornado, earthquake or bombing that might take place, but rather the devastation caused by leaders and their sycophant teams. We have only to look at the behavior of many in the Financial Services Sector and note how many lives have been destroyed as a result of their greed and cowardly behavior. Then there is this thing called the C Suite! (I like to call it the C(K)ool-aid Suite!) The attraction of the C suite is addictive. Once one is in this hallowed place called the C suite, does one run toward or away from danger? Does one have the courage to hold onto one’s principled self or not? Can one demonstrate courage?

The Courage to Speak up

The issue of courage was an important element of my Ph.D. dissertation. Here my research centered on the ethical challenges faced by women in positions of power and leadership. Over a period of a couple of years I interviewed over one hundred senior women in business, many of whom had considerable power and who managed resources (people and money) in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The overwhelming finding of this research was that the main ethical dilemma the women struggled with was how to strategically pick their moral battles so that they would not lose their power at the executive table. In other words they silenced themselves in order to be heard. The women tended to rationalize their strategy by arguing that by silencing themselves in certain cases they would be able to achieve greater overall good since they remained in power to do so. Surely this argument begs some serious questioning. When does one have the courage to speak up no matter what the price?

The twentieth century philosopher, Hannah Arendt, who managed to escape Hitler’s Germany, was interested in understanding how it was possible that so many supposedly “normal” people colluded with the evil Nazi regime and allowed and even facilitated the deaths of millions of Jews. Her research findings concluded that many people assumed indifference or even ignorance to what was happening to other people. As long as it did not affect them personally they could look the other way. Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe this indifference. She argued that the real evil lay not so much with the actual perpetrators of the murders but with the blatant indifference of the masses. Once again this raises a question for each one of us. When do we look the other way because it is supposedly not “our issue?” When is it our issue? And when do we have the courage to speak up?

Courage in Every Step

Courage is the fabric of everyday life. Courage is not something only required of those in formal leadership roles. The matter of courage presents us with our own personal challenge regarding our own personal lives. Courage plays a role in every sincere conversation and in every relationship encounter. Are we being true and can we speak our truth? Can we hold onto our authentic, principled selves? How do we deal with the challenge of opportunities for self-aggrandizement verse self-sacrifice; honesty and allegiance to the truth versus maintaining embedded in webs of loyalty; sticking to personally selected principles of behavior versus going with the crowd? Many small acts require great acts of courage. So the leadership-courage question speaks directly to our own personal leadership and how we live our lives.

The Gift of Courage

It is time to shift our focus from leadership to explore the meaning of courage.  Courage is defined as the ability to act despite our fears. That does not mean that any act carried out from a place of fear or made in response to fear is an act of courage. On the contrary, many of those kinds of acts can be destructive and life-destroying rather than life-giving. Real courage is the ability to face fear or danger with self-possession; with fortitude; with strength of mind and spirit. Real courage requires drawing on a reserve of inner strength that enables one to act with valor and principled intention.

Courageous acts are not only those visible acts of bravery which are easy to observe and identify.

More often courageous acts are less visible and more subtle as they take place below the surface. These courageous acts require us to deal with the tensions between the divine and the demon that lie within each one of us. They require us to wrestle with our fears and to subdue our narcissistic and neurotic egos.

Courage is a wonderful human ability. It reflects a quality of mind and spirit. It is a human virtue.

Courage is noble; it illumines the truth.

Courage is always marvelously appropriate. It occurs at the right time; at the right place; with the right intention or motive; in the right action that occurs in the right way. It affects the right people or addresses the right issues.

Courage reflects self-possession and resolve.

Courage is kind.

Courage displays a spirit of hope and trust.

Courage, like real leadership, advances goodness.

And true courage is always life-giving.

Courage, like all virtues needs development, nourishment and practice. One of our most precious gifts to one another and the world is our acts of courage. Surely leadership and courage are inseparable. Leadership means acting courageously and courageous actions exercise leadership. The one incorporates the other.

Courage for Daily Living

It is not easy to live in our so called civilized world of the 21st century. It is not easy to be a highly functioning person and to face the many challenges, uncertainties and losses that life brings amidst its many joys. It takes great courage to live these days in world of so many choices where every moment we have to make a decision without all the facts and without always knowing the depth or breadth of the consequences.

If we look at our own courage we can appreciate our capacity for life, love and happiness. We can also celebrate the hero within each one of us as we reflect on our enormous capacity for courage as we strive daily to make wise and courageous choices.

As the great Athenian commander, Pericles, reminds us, without courage there is no freedom. And where there is no freedom, there is no happiness. If we agree on nothing else, I am sure we agree we all want to be happy!

Annabel Beerel

June 7, 2013