Three Kinds of Courage

Some years ago, I co-wrote a book called, Dri­ving Fear Out of the Work­place, regard­ing the dynam­ics of speak­ing up in orga­ni­za­tions. My co-author and I described typ­i­cal “undiscussable” issues – undis­cuss­ables being issues that peo­ple hes­i­tate to talk about with those who can do some­thing about the prob­lem – and how to approach them to cre­ate a more open work­place. Based on inter­views from a wide range of orga­ni­za­tions, we spelled out the rea­sons peo­ple most fre­quent­ly don’t speak up, the neg­a­tive effects of that and we also sug­gest­ed spe­cif­ic tech­niques that enlight­ened man­agers might use to cre­ate high trust, high per­for­mance envi­ron­ments. The pub­li­ca­tion of this book pro­pelled me into a nation­al con­sult­ing prac­tice with pri­vate and pub­lic sec­tor clients of all kinds. 

What I quick­ly dis­cov­ered as a lead­er­ship con­sul­tant was this: if you want to dri­ve fear out of the work­place you must start by fos­ter­ing courage among its lead­ers. At its sim­plest, this courage comes in three forms: the courage to lis­ten to dif­fi­cult mes­sages, the courage to have a real voice, and the courage to act from a strong sense of per­son­al pur­pose. These, in my view, are the most impor­tant inter­per­son­al tasks of a leader, the ones that either build or under­mine trust, that either lead to shared, col­lab­o­ra­tive, aligned action, or to deser­tion of a lead­er­ship role in favor of for­mal pow­er and con­trol. These tasks are not for the faint-heart­ed and, because of the depth of human poten­tials, they are never-ending. 

The out­come of mas­ter­ing these chal­lenges is the devel­op­ment of a rela­tion­al field among peo­ple that is open and mutu­al­ly influ­en­tial, a place of dia­logue even when peo­ple oth­er­wise might seem dis­con­nect­ed from one anoth­er. It is the place where the “best selves” of peo­ple show up, where there is a free give and take of feed­back with a min­i­mum of ten­sion or indi­rec­tion. It is filled with the sto­ries of lives as much as the sto­ries of work, a place a seri­ous­ness, laugh­ter, play and dif­fi­cult but worth­while com­bined efforts. It is the home of trust. To reach this place requires a new jour­ney each time peo­ple come togeth­er and espe­cial­ly when peo­ple are new to one anoth­er. For the leader is requires reflec­tion, the process of open­ing and chal­leng­ing one­self to ever greater lev­els of awareness.

The first form of courage involves lis­ten­ing to oth­er­s’ chal­leng­ing per­son­al views and per­spec­tives, espe­cial­ly when that involves neg­a­tive per­cep­tions about the leader. In many orga­ni­za­tions, tak­ing the risk to bring such issues to the sur­face can eas­i­ly sav­age a messenger’s rep­u­ta­tion and cred­i­bil­i­ty if not tenure in an orga­ni­za­tion. The term, “kill the mes­sen­ger” is not folk­lore. It is an embed­ded part of Amer­i­can cul­ture, although it may hap­pen as a less con­scious aspect of a leader’s style than is often imag­ined. Whether intend­ed or not, how­ev­er, before open­ness can replace fear, a leader must under­stand the dynam­ics of retal­i­a­tion – which may not be a con­scious act at all — and be able to sus­tain feed­back that may be per­son­al­ly quite uncomfortable.

Over the years, some of my clients have had lit­tle trou­ble with this respon­si­bil­i­ty. They under­stand that hear­ing and act­ing upon the per­cep­tions of their reports are crit­i­cal sup­ports for their lead­er­ship suc­cess. From the stand­point of their own integri­ty, these clients see hear­ing and under­stand­ing tough data an essen­tial part of mod­el­ing what they want from oth­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly because it means mod­el­ing a stan­dard for both speak­ing up and hear­ing oth­er­s’ truths. They under­stand that feed­back is use­ful, maybe even more use­ful, when it comes with a sting, and work hard to sep­a­rate neg­a­tive pro­jec­tions of oth­ers from con­struc­tive feed­back. But oth­er clients have had a very dif­fi­cult time respond­ing at all. They recoil into a sense of per­son­al offense, ratio­nal­iza­tion, or inac­tion, as if the core of their integri­ty has been chal­lenged by another’s dis­agree­able views, no mat­ter how much truth is involved. This is such a pro­found dis­tinc­tion that it is per­haps worth not­ing as a fun­da­men­tal test of whether some­one should occu­py a lead­er­ship role at all. Either a per­son can get feed­back as a leader or cannot.

The sec­ond form of courage is as the ener­gy need­ed to dis­tin­guish the leader’s pres­ence from oth­ers. Courage lib­er­ates a per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al voice to become real, a true reflec­tion of the essence and val­ues of the per­son. Peo­ple with­out authen­tic voic­es can nev­er take the risks to serve as effec­tive mes­sen­gers with­in the com­plex of sys­tems that keep us cap­tured by the sta­tus quo. They have trou­ble set­ting bound­aries for them­selves and oth­ers in the scope of their pro­fes­sion­al respon­si­bil­i­ties and are often under- or over-involved in the day-to-day work. They can­not use­ful­ly ini­ti­ate change. 

This is dif­fer­ent from the clas­sic term, “assertiveness.” Assertive­ness as a stand-alone qual­i­ty pri­mar­i­ly implies adult-to-adult com­mu­ni­ca­tion in order to get one’s needs met. Voice by com­par­i­son rep­re­sents the broad­er qual­i­ties of a unique per­son­al­i­ty result­ing from rad­i­cal self-trust. It emerges from the hard work of learn­ing to accept, love, and care for self; allow­ing the self to stand up to the inva­sions of oth­ers with­out becom­ing imper­me­able or cold. The very strongest of peo­ple with voice are more qui­et than bois­ter­ous pre­cise­ly because they need no arti­fi­cial strength­en­ing in order to be heard.

The third form of courage, and this kind under­girds the first two, is reflect­ed by the will toward deep self-inquiry and there­fore, after tri­als, mean­ing­ful self-knowl­edge. Those who can­not look into the pri­vate, sub­jec­tive aspects of their own past con­di­tion­ing are not like­ly to find a great pur­pose and a role through which to gal­va­nize action. Mon­ey and the per­son­al accu­mu­la­tion of it are not such a gal­va­niz­ing pur­pose; in fact, mon­ey is usu­al­ly just the oppo­site. Courage is required for wake­ful­ness in life. The pos­ses­sion of too much wealth may keep peo­ple asleep by remov­ing the learn­ing that comes from adversity. 

With­out courage in these forms cer­tain things decrease in like­li­hood: the desire to see real­i­ty for what it is; the artic­u­la­tion of a vision stronger than being bet­ter than oth­ers; the capac­i­ty for oper­at­ing in a per­son­al­ly eth­i­cal man­ner when pres­sures mount to break prin­ci­ples. It might even be argued that the great­est of human virtues, com­pas­sion and the for­give­ness of oth­ers, require courage, as these are hard­ly acces­si­ble to us with­out the per­son­al strength to eval­u­ate our own flaws. 

Sad­ly, some lead­ers appear to believe just the oppo­site, that lead­ing is real­ly all about insen­si­tiv­i­ty to their own shad­ows, about hid­ing their voic­es in favor of manip­u­lat­ing cir­cum­stances – or using their voic­es sim­ply to dom­i­nate, and about the denial of pur­pos­es that don’t serve cor­po­rate ends. Their meth­ods are more about cov­er-ups, threats, and imper­son­al rela­tion­ships than about hon­est­ly mar­shal­ing the great capac­i­ties of human com­mu­ni­ties and enter­pris­es. In their view, eth­i­cal action and com­pas­sion are either sim­ply naive or a mat­ter for media rela­tions. Because of the way soci­ety is con­struct­ed, these peo­ple nev­er­the­less may end up in very pow­er­ful, con­trol­ling roles. This dis­tinc­tion was not­ed years ago by Ronald Heifetz of Har­vard as the dif­fer­ence between an author­i­ty and a leader. My sense is that pure author­i­ty seeks to crush out lead­er­ship the way a male lion kills the cubs of its pre­de­ces­sor. By com­par­i­son, lead­ers spread their trust, encour­age oth­ers to lead, and fos­ter a broad vision in which all may participate.

What is clear is that each of the three tasks requires that we risk our­selves in one way or anoth­er. This is the foun­da­tion of trust. The les­son is that lead­ers who real­ly want to dri­ve fear out of the work­place, who want to cre­ate gen­uine open­ness, col­lab­o­ra­tion, and align­ment, must take lead­er­ship per­son­al­ly. It is a road, a jour­ney, a path to per­son­al and soci­etal whole­ness. It is a trans­for­ma­tion of the leader, but more impor­tant­ly, the trans­for­ma­tion of every­one else, too. This is pre-emi­nent­ly not about blam­ing oth­ers for the prob­lems of an orga­ni­za­tion or soci­ety at large, or set­ting ground rules for oth­er peo­ple while break­ing them your­self. It is about the deep­est form of con­gru­ence; about the unfold­ing process of lead­ing by learn­ing more and more about one­self, sourced both in under­stand­ing one’s inner states and one’s exter­nal results.

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One Comment

  • …It is about the deep­est form of con­gru­ence; about the unfold­ing process of lead­ing by learn­ing more and more about one­self, sourced both in under­stand­ing one’s inner states and one’s exter­nal results.” Beau­ti­ful post, Dan–words and images… Appre­cia­tive­ly, k

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