NAVIGATING TURBULENT TIMES: Why Courageous Leadership Matters Now More Than Ever
Courage is no longer just reserved for heroes of myths and movies — it is a requirement for leaders as they navigate the volatile post-pandemic world. Modern complex organizations face many challenges, from change-fatigued employees who demand more purpose and flexibility, through to business disruption. Transformation is no longer a nice-to-have, it is a survival requirement. Yet change is difficult, and transformations often fail to stick, backsliding into old ways of working. To bring lasting change leaders driving complex transformations need to demonstrate courage by listening honestly and addressing the elephant in the room.
In large organizations, all functions are interconnected, the system is never frozen, and any fix or change comes up against the challenge of trying to hit a fast-moving target. As a result, when solutions are proposed, leaders frequently lack 360 visibility of the impact. It is often difficult to tell whether the proposed solution will address the root cause or act as another band-aid. In the face of these challenges, leaders often take a positive “let’s fix this” attitude and begin solving for the low-hanging fruit. If that fails, they may default to paralysis or snap decisions — both of which lead to poor outcomes.
A courageous leader on the other hand seeks to understand the root cause by asking tough questions of themselves and of others on their team. Questions such as:
“What are all of the factors that have created this situation and how can we look at them together as a system?”
“What is the elephant in the room that we are afraid to talk about or address?”
“What is my role in creating or perpetuating this problem?”
Courage is the ability to do something one is frightened of, and to show strength in the face of pain. Difficult questions require courage because the answers one gets may point to major flaws in the organizational system, which are frequently perpetuated by the people desiring the change. The answers to these difficult questions may require honest conversations among the leadership team that may point out flaws in their own behavior and/or the need for major system upheaval. At other times, the questions may highlight knowledge gaps and a lack of understanding of key business, talent, or customer drivers. Without courage, one simply will not venture into this kind of discomfort and bring pain onto oneself and others. Using the Johari window framework illustrated below, courage allows leaders to explore the 2nd & 4th quadrants and reveal the 3rd.
We do things because the benefits of doing them outweigh the hardships, here are just some of the benefits of practicing being a courageous leader.
- Seeking to understand reality as it is, leads to having honest and real conversations.
- Showing courage gains the respect and trust of those around us.
- Acting in the face of one’s fear provides the greatest opportunities for learning and growth.
- Acting despite our fears and showing strength in the face of fear builds integrity and ultimately produces happiness and fulfillment.
- Showing courage forges the backbone of innovation and risk taking.
Practice, is the keyword when it comes to courage. If a leader decides that courage is a valuable quality, they can begin to practice in a low-risk environment, such as a trusted circle of peers, or their leadership team. The list below is a set of skills and competencies to be practiced, refined, and mastered to develop courage.
- Difficult conversations: there are many great resources out there on how to have difficult conversations that are productive, emotionally sensitive, and lead to positive outcomes. To name just a few: Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Crucial Conversations by Joseph Grenny, Non Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenburg. The benefits of developing this skill reach far beyond the professional.
- Giving and receiving feedback: Find opportunities to ask for feedback, this will make you better at giving it. Let the feedback soak in, but make sure that you do not let one person’s opinion throw you off. Cultivate the emotional intelligence to process the feelings that come up. When giving, don’t try to protect others for fear of how the feedback will land and use a proven feedback model.
- Asking courageous questions: leaders must transition from asking who and what questions, into deeper inquiry into the why. Asking questions of others must be balanced with self-reflection questions such as, “what is my role in this situation?”, or, “how is my behavior as a leader creating or allowing this situation?”. Another great framework is the 5 WHYS, which encouraging asking“why?” at least five times, when trying to determine the root cause of an issue.
- Looking beyond action to impact: connected to asking deeper questions is the ability to stretch beyond what happened, into the many cascading impacts of various decisions. This is also true for what leaders and organizations choose to measure. All too often the metrics for success are based on outputs rather than impacts, which take more thoughtfulness to define and track.
- Convening: if your meetings feel boring, unproductive, or go in circles without coming to concrete decisions, then you are having meetings and not convening. You are convening when there is: healthy debate, probing to discover root causes, open discussion of an imagined future, individuals are putting forward proposals, and people holding one another accountable. Learn the skills to convene or hire a good process consultant who knows how to do this.
- Diverging and converging: In the diverging phase, ideas are generated to widen possibilities. Converging is the narrowing towards a single solution. Most people are stronger in one or the other, a good leader knows how to do both effectively and when to prioritize each.
- Holding tensions: Leaders are tasked with the dual role of being the stabilizer and the visionary. In the stabilizer role, people are seeking consistency and stability in order to generate psychological safety leading to productivity. At the other end of the spectrum is the visionary who sees into the future, imagines possibilities that are not yet there, and takes the organization to new heights and innovations. This role is destabilizing and disruptive of the status quo. The modern leader must wear both hats. There is a time to collapse the tensions, and at other times one must use the tension in the system as a creative springboard.
Mastering all seven of these skills can and should be a lifelong journey. Great leaders know which they are strong in, know which ones are important growth edges to develop, and supported by others around them, or hired for. Greatness requires taking on hardships, and courage can be the magic key that unlocks the doors of success, prosperity, and even happiness — enjoy the journey!