“Men Don’t Follow Titles…

they follow courage.” Braveheart

Are you a courageous leader? Is that why people follow you?

Okay, some of you might think it’s a stretch to call what corporate and government leaders do courageous. Like former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s admission that he colluded with then Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson to mislead the public and shape the government’s messaging during the 2008 Lehman Brother’s collapse in a book called – get this –  Courage to Act.  Heaven forbid we perpetuate the over-inflated sense of self-importance many senior leaders have.

But the question’s still valid: do people do what you say because of your title or because you’re a courageous leader?

I like the Braveheart quote, because during my long association with the military’s special operations community, I got to know a lot of really courageous leaders – some with titles and some without. They were followed because they had the courage to go forward in the face of extreme adversity, and they had the courage to admit failure when their best wasn’t good enough.

They had the courage to speak out against a bad plan, but they had the discipline and commitment to fix the plan and execute it with everything they had. Some even showed courage by hanging up their spurs when the organization’s culture grated on their personal integrity like fingernails on a chalkboard.

Great corporate leaders do those kinds of things, too, so I guess courage isn’t reserved for the battlefield. History is full of examples where those with the guts to take risks, forge ahead, and lead change during trying times are remembered for their courageous leadership.

So one more time: do people follow you because you display confidence and gutsy leadership, or are you hunkered down behind the status quo exercising your authority over them? And yes, I watched the movie to the end and saw Mel Gibson’s character meet a painful and gruesome demise. I’d like to think that was against your company’s HR policies.

Here are some of my favorite ways I’ve seen leaders display courage away from the battlefield:

  • Be real. No rose-colored glasses or pretending it’s all unicorns and rainbows. Confront hard reality head-on and be honest about it with the people you lead so they know the true state of the organization.
  • Tell it like you see it. That doesn’t mean you get to use the truth like a club, but sometimes real conversations can be awkward, and it takes guts to not avoid them. Especially when you have to tell the boss what she doesn’t want to hear – naked emperors ruin organizations.
  • Encourage constructive debate. Have the guts to stand in there in the face of dissent, knowing that when reasonably intelligent, well-intentioned people disagree, the organization is generally better off.
  • Indecision kills. Make a decision and move on. Even if it’s unpopular. And then have the guts to make a better decision if that one doesn’t pan out. That kind of courage is contagious when you build a culture where people aren’t afraid of the occasional failure that comes with taking risks.
  • Don’t tolerate bad behavior. You endorse what you tolerate, and if you put up with negative performance issues, everyone knows it. It’s demoralizing to your high achievers to listen to Billy Do-Little BS with his pals about how long is too long to take for lunch. Back to having hard conversations, don’t let bad behavior slide – reinforce expectations and get a commitment from the miscreant to improve – or get rid of him.

About 20 years ago in the Air Force’s senior service school, I was part of a group of a half-dozen or so having an intimate chat with a recently retired Air Force Chief of Staff. We talked about selfless service, leadership, integrity, and courage, and I asked him how he knew it was time to leave. His answer should resonate with all leaders.

Though he could have stayed in his position much longer, he said after he knew in his heart that the moral compass of those above him was pointing in the wrong direction, leaving was the only option.

He didn’t follow a title, he followed courage.