Aristotle believed courage to be the first true virtue, and explained that without it none of the other virtues could exist.  This is never truer than when it comes to leadership. Courage is the first virtue of leadership, and without it we cannot lead our teams and enterprises to success.

Why then do so few business leaders consistently exhibit courage? Perhaps it is in relation to the idea that a lack thereof (or cowardice) is a corporate survival requirement.

In business, fear (of failure), danger (of getting fired), uncertainty (of acceptance), risk (of losing money), and opposition (to virtually every new idea) are rampant. We are all confronted with these “courage killers” on a daily basis. These events and emotions should inspire courage, yet they often inspire the opposite. And the opposite of courage is cowardice… there is no in between.

“I’m no coward!” Perhaps you are not. Consider this, however…

  • If you do not challenge the status quo in every aspect of your business, you are a coward, afraid to step out and challenge business as usual.
  • If you do not stand up and fight for ideas with a sense of optimism and energy, you are a coward, afraid to take on the new.
  • If you do not vigorously lead your organization to the future (rather than simply through today), you are a coward, afraid of failure if you get “the future” wrong.
  • If you stop pursuing ideas just because you encounter opposition, you are a coward, unwilling to face conflict in pursuit of doing what is right.

If that seems a bit harsh, consider the good news – courage is a choice. Put these five simple strategies to work to increase your Courage Quotient immediately!

  1. Engage – Don’t sit back and watch as the people around you are engaged and contributing. Get in the game and be a part of every conversation… and every solution. Tip – the single biggest threat to engagement is multi-tasking. Be intentional and focused in meetings, phone calls, conversations, and important tasks, and get all the way engaged. This often means leaving phones and computers behind. When you are courageous enough to do this, your contributions (and perceived value) will improve dramatically.
  2. Raise Your Hand – The next time there is an opportunity, be the first to volunteer to lead a team or solve a problem. Proactive volunteering demonstrates a selfless dedication to the greater good. Tip – Stop reading right now and think of one thing your organization needs to do better and/or differently. Spend some time developing your thoughts, and volunteer immediately to lead the effort. The benefits are twofold – your organization gets better, and you are recognized as a courageous leader.
  3. Challenge – We have the opportunity to challenge the status quo every single day. How often do you hear that your organization cannot do something due to X, Y, or Z? Guess what – you don’t have to take it anymore!  Tip – The next time you hear “we can’t,” “it doesn’t work that way,” or “that’s just not the way we do things,” ask a few simple questions in return – Why not?  Is it illegal? Is it unethical? Will we go out of business? If the answer to these questions is “no” (which it almost always is), break all the rules of business-as-usual and do the right thing – rather than just doing things right.
  4. Start Up and Stand Up – Become an idea advocate. Be courageous enough to voice your ideas regularly, and also to stand up for other’s ideas. Tip – challenge yourself (and others) to come from a place of support for every idea, as this allows ideas to get fully developed before being judged. When you see ideas getting shut down prematurely, jump in and provide support (see #3 above). Also, volunteer to lead a team to develop the idea and report back (see #2 above), as almost every idea deserves exploring.
  5. Encourage Courage – Ask yourself what you are doing to encourage courage, which is much different than saying that it’s okay to be courageous. Tip – open yourself up to feedback from others, both in one-on-one and group settings. Resist asking general questions, and instead ask specific questions to get direct feedback from your peers, your direct reports, and your boss. Be accepting and thankful for the feedback, and encourage more on a regular basis. Finally, lead by example and pay it forward by giving feedback as often as possible to these same people…even when it’s a bit uncomfortable (which is pretty much every time).

Remember, you should be somewhat nervous and fearful when being courageous. Without fear, courage would not be required… which is precisely the point. In the words of John Wayne (who played some of the toughest, most courageous fictional characters in history) – “courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.” My challenge to you – saddle up anyway!

Lead. Courageously.

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