Recently I asked some colleagues to recall examples of what they regarded as great leadership, and to give me one or two words to encapsulate the key quality that they’d observed. Given the multi-faceted nature of leadership I was, not surprisingly, offered a collection of adjectives of which ‘brave’ was just one. I dutifully collated and grouped the words and shared them back to the group via WhatsApp as an FYI, which then prompted a flurry of comments and GIFs, including one of Mel Gibson as Braveheart, each elevating the notion of bravery as a key quality.
I then asked other people about what sorts of role models came to mind for leaders, and again, themes around bravery and a willingness to lead by example seemed to resonate very quickly and instinctively with people.
In contrast, individuals who rise to leadership positions in 21st Century organisational life are often required to present themselves well, be well-educated, be something of a proven commodity in their field, be decisive problem solvers and yet empathic with others. And perhaps, ideally, they might be the proud holder of an expensive MBA.
The idea that people expect the leaders and leadership teams they work under to be brave, seems to have been somewhat lost, but based on my limited research being brave remains a primal belief and expectation among followers of those who would lead.
This instinctive draw towards bravery as a leadership quality somewhat surprised me, although on reflection, it’s fairly obvious as you don’t have to scratch too deep to realise that outstanding leaders across the millennia have indeed displayed extraordinary levels of bravery. I am not suggesting the following people were necessarily paragons of human virtue, nonetheless giants from the past like Alexander the Great, King Alfred, Oliver Cromwell, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, despite the huge differences between them and the methods they adopted, must all have been amazingly brave people at times to achieve what they did.
Leadership activity can reasonably be identified as the establishing of a compelling vision, the engagement of willing followers to pursue that vision, the embracing of information, know-how and methods to realise the vision and the effective corralling of different factions and groups into a coherent force.
Merriam-Webster’s defines “bravery” as the quality or state of having or showing mental or moral strength to face danger, fear, or difficulty.
Clearly, the vision-led nature of leadership involves dealing with ambiguity which itself requires a degree of bravery. Therefore, having a clear vision of a desired future state, whether for a radically better new world or, more modestly, an improved relationship with a work colleague, will often call for an act of bravery.
In her 2018 Forbes article, Margie Warrell lists seven hallmarks for what she calls truly courageous leaders, as follows:
- Setting a daring Vision
- Seeking out dissenters & fostering inclusion
- Breaking the rules
- Speaking candidly while taking care of people as they do
- Acting decisively amid ambiguity
- Extending trust
- Emboldening others to lean toward risk
Some of the items in this list may appeal to you or be more applicable in your situation.
For sure, not all situations require leaders to be first and foremost brave, indeed too much reliance on bravery can easily flip into reckless behaviour with potentially catastrophic consequences.
Business as usual is better served from a position of relatively high confidence and low uncertainty – and relying less on being brave. Confidence will often flow from being well prepared to undertake a particular endeavour both from a cognitive and emotive point of view.
However, confidence in oneself and others can never be 100%, self-doubt and uncertainty will always lurk in most situations, and the bigger the situation the greater the danger, fear and difficulty in leading the way through.
Having briefly considered this topic of bravery, I conclude that I agree with my little research group. Bravery is indeed an essential leadership attribute that we all have to show from time to time. Of course, it is wise to become highly alert and discerning as to which moments do truly require you to be brave. And once accepted as such a moment, it is also wise to prepare (for the hopefully metaphorical battle to come) through appropriate drills and practice in a safe environment so as to build your competence and self-belief. But ultimately, being brave is going to be what is required of you as a leader.
I believe all leaders benefit from working with a coach from time to time. Developing your capacity and preparedness to act bravely is just one of many human qualities that coaching can support.