People have been searching for the perfect mixture of leadership characteristics for thousands of years. Unfortunately, for every list of characteristics that gets created, another list can hold contradictory information. The inconsistent nature of what others consider leadership qualities makes it hard to know where to start to become a better leader.
Fortunately, one characteristic has been proven to be foundational to leadership: Courage.
Courage is about having the guts, the nerve and the commitment to create change and do what is right. Truly effective and outstanding leadership rests on courage. Without it, leadership loses its effectiveness.
The opposite of courage, cowardice, is on display when a leader fails to make the effort required in any particular situation. Fear of confrontation or fear of being judged are only two of the many reasons fear paralyzes us into inaction.
Cowardice can perpetuate behaviors that leaders may not want, but tolerate anyway. This can include the avoidance of conversations about gossip, bullying, sexual harassment and other issues that can hurt team members. Courage enables leaders to face their own fears for the sake of others because it’s the right thing to do.
An example of this is the tolerance of illegal drug use among crew members. If leaders don’t demonstrate the courage to change expectations and exhibit zero tolerance, chances are that no one else on the team will say anything about it.
Ushering in change, which is the reason why leadership is so important, is challenging. It’s courage that gives a leader the inner strength to meet and overcome any challenge set before them.
What makes leadership tricky isn’t learning about some obscure theory, it’s putting hard choices into action. All of the knowledge in the world does no good without the courage to walk the talk. You can’t just learn about courage; you have to put it into practice.
Being an outstanding leader rests on a willingness to experience the discomfort of saying or doing what needs to be done. Consider when a captain’s girlfriend, who’s been hired as chief stew, sets policy for the vessel and behaves like she’s the boss. It takes courage from the chief mate to speak to the captain about the situation. Courage means speaking up when others are silent.
Everyone wins when courage is displayed by the leader, which creates a model others can follow. This will decrease the fear team members may have about having their own difficult conversations. With less fear, crew members will more willingly speak up about important issues.
Nelson Mandela once said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, it’s learning to overcome it.”
So where does courage come from? No one is born with it. Courage is developed through practice, like any other skill. Every time you feel uncomfortable taking a first step, you build courage.
As a leader, do you model these courageous behaviors for your crew?
Accept responsibility. When things go wrong, courageous leaders accept responsibility for their actions and the actions of their teams. Courageous leaders don’t lay blame or point fingers at others.
Say what needs to be said. Even though you will feel discomfort, have the difficult conversations in order to create dialogue. Dialogue is essential for creating a win-win situation for everyone involved.
Communicate openly and frequently. This ties in with saying what needs to be said. Communication is synonymous with leadership. If you don’t keep people informed, fear can develop in the form of gossip, rumors and uncertainty. Courageous leaders share information, no matter how bad it may be.
Hold everyone accountable. Lay out clear expectations for people to achieve and hold them to it. Just because someone is a spouse, boyfriend or good friend of the leader does not excuse poor performance. Leaders need to have the courage to confront crew members when they don’t meet expectations. Accountability begins with the leader. Hold yourself to the same standard as everyone else. If you don’t, you’ll be seen as a hypocrite.
Accept feedback. Being told we aren’t good at something can be a blow to our ego. Courageous leaders willingly accept feedback and act on what they are told. Demonstrate courage so others can be courageous, too. Feedback can improve your relationships and leadership style if you courageously listen and act.
“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak,” Winston Churchill once said, but “courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”
Paul Ferdais is founder and CEO of The Marine Leadership Group (www.marineleadershipgroup.com) delivering leadership training workshops and coaching. He holds a master’s degree in leadership and spent years working his way up from deckhand, to first officer on yachts. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.