This piece is the first installment in a six-part series on leadership character by Col. Eric Kail.
Are you a courageous leader?
The question often leads the imagination to extreme examples such as rushing into a burning building without hesitation in order to save someone. And it’s easy to assume that someone simply has that ability to be courageous or they don’t. Yet not only is the example flawed, the subsequent assumption is flawed. Let’s make the question more relevant. Would you speak up for a coworker if your boss were speaking inappropriately about them, or is that something you just pretend you would do?
Most of us overestimate our courage, just as we do many other attributes so vital to maintaining a positive self-image. Courage is a critical yet complex component of character-based leadership, and has two components: physical and moral. We focus on the physical aspect of courage the most, because we think it’s the stuff heroes are made of. However, without the foundation of moral courage and wisdom, those actions might simply be reckless. Moral courage is at the heart of our resiliency to resolve internal strife, and it is all about choice not genetics. To understand it, we have to go a layer deeper than asking “Would I do the right thing?” That question is loaded; and regardless of whether we answer yes, the why remains unaddressed. Better questions to ask are “Am I easily intimidated?” or “Does criticism bother me?” These get at the selfish insecurities that inhibit the development of moral courage.
Hoping or thinking that we will be courageous when a critical moment arrives is a cowardly approach. We cannot become someone in 30 seconds that we haven’t been for the past 10 years. The critical truth of courageous leadership lies in how we live every day, not just the flashes of the extreme.
To assess courageous leadership in yourself and in the lives of those you lead, you can begin by looking for indicators that represent a struggle to resolve the conflict between self and truth. For example, we often attempt to be more physically courageous when we know we’ve behaved with moral cowardice. It makes us feel better about ourselves, though it can resemble physical recklessness because it’s not actually derived from a place of moral bravery.
Developing courage, especially moral courage, in yourself and in others starts by shifting the focus from doing things right to doing the right things. This involves transparency and patience. Moral courage is not an inherited trait: It takes time and reflection to learn to reconcile internal conflict, but only a second to ignore it and lie to yourself. So the next time you say or do something inappropriate and subordinates plays along, discuss how you can better facilitate their ability to speak up—because if you are not actively developing morally courageous leaders, then you are creating and underwriting moral cowards.
Col. Eric Kail is an Army field artillery officer who has commanded at the company and battalion levels. He is the course director of military leadership at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He holds a PhD in organizational psychology.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
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