I have great respect for professional baseball players; they are anything but wimpy. To stand in front of home plate with a ball heading toward your head at 95 miles per hour with nothing but a piece of wood to bat it away takes guts. Life and leadership are a lot like baseball. Even the best batters strike out sometimes. But a true athlete, and courageous leaders, can never run away from the pitch.
I may not play baseball, but I do snow ski, and the analogy is much the same. The first time I faced the challenge of a mogul run on a black diamond slope that was steep and overwhelming, it was tough for me to muster the energy to get down the mountain. While gazing over the steep side from the top of the run, my friend’s advice was, “Point your skis down the hill and keep your nose over your tips. You have to lean forward and over your ski tips. Even when you are overcome with fright, maintain a posture of nose over tips, rather than leaning back.” In essence: lean back and you fall.
This is not only great advice for skiing steep slopes but also good advice for leadership. As a leader, you sit atop the mountain. You have no choice but to face the slopes. You can lean back, coast, and play it safe, snowplowing your way painfully back and forth across the mountain, or you can point you skis down the hill, nose over the tips, and dominate the run. Being a courageous leader requires you to push beyond the norm, be willing to take risks and quit being a wimp.
Courage is not an individual trait but an organizational one. It’s a natural instinct that all leaders confront fear of failure and fear of the unknown. But living in that fear is destructive for a team and will kill momentum.
Courage is not waiting for your fear to go away; it is confronting your fear head-on.
Through working with young leaders around the nation, I have found six essentials that can help build a culture of courage in an organization:
1) Set scary standards. Your level of excellence and expectation for your product, service or experience should be something that is nearly unattainable. Safe goals are set by safe leaders with safe visions. Give your people a goal that scares them, and you’ll produce leaders who know what it means to overcome fear.
2) Allow for failure. The road to success is many times paved through multiple failures. Allow for and even encourage your team to fail as they attempt to succeed.
3) Make decisions. Don’t let ideas, strategy, communication, and important organizational markers sit idly by on the side without saying yes or no. Leaders are decision makers, and must do it constantly.
4) Reward innovation. Innovation requires taking risks. And bold risks create bold team members. Rewarding innovation will challenge your team to grow in their roles.
5) Pursue the right opportunities. Not every risk is a good one. Be disciplined. Aggressively pursue a few things that make sense. Say no often.
6) Learn to delegate. This is one of the most courageous things a leader can do. Entrusting others with important tasks requires letting go and relinquishing control. Liberally pass responsibility and authority to your team. If you want your team to be courageous, give them the chance to lead. Early and often.
These elements aren’t easy to nurture in a corporate setting. You and your colleagues will likely resist it at every turn. As G.K. Chesterton said, “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live, taking the form of readiness to die.” Courage mingles our desire to rush forward with a willingness to accept the possibility of being stopped in our tracks.
Yet if you desire to be a leader who changes the world, you have no choice but to exhibit courage on a constant basis.
The good news is that unlike some leadership traits, courage is not inborn; it’s learned. The natural response is to run from what frightens us, but life’s greatest leaps occur when we resist this impulse.
Remember when you were completely fearless as a kid? Children often demonstrate courage naturally. Most of us can think back to times as a child when we stepped out in courage. Whether riding a bike without training wheels, jumping into the deep end of the pool, or letting go of the rails to ice-skate without assistance, life teaches us that progress requires courage. We have to be willing to get out to the edge, look at what is in the front of us, summon up the fortitude, and jump.
The jump may be risky, but the decision to stay where you are is even more so.