Editor’s Note: This article by AIIR Founder and CEO Dr. Jonathan Kirschner was originally published February 2022 in Entrepreneur.
A leader’s motivation is reflected in everything they do, from the smallest act to the grandest gesture, but one characteristic sets the exceptional apart from the crowd: courage.
Those with this quality look at obstacles with steely determination despite risks — make the choices others are too afraid to make. Of course, no one is perfect, and leaders will occasionally falter, but having the courage to remain true to one’s core values through victory and defeat is what distinguishes the courageous variety. People also look for leaders with integrity and humility — people who are not solely in it for power and popularity, but want to add true value to the lives of others.
Integrity plays a vital role here, including having the resolve to own failures as well as successes, the bravery to make difficult decisions and the self-awareness to hold ourselves accountable.
Literally defined by Merriam-Webster as “the quality of being honest and fair,” as well as “the state of being complete or whole,” integrity, as applies to leadership, means not being afraid to tell the truth even when we know it’s not what people want to hear. If an investment falls through or an employee does not meet expectations, we do not avoid, deflect or circumvent, but face the problem head-on with honesty and thoughtful consideration.
Consider a meeting in which upper management is contemplating an action that could be considered dubious. It might be more convenient to abandon our values and go along with the plan. However, the courageous leader does not balk under pressure: Such a person stands up for their values and lets management know that something does not feel right. The rest of the team may never know that this stand was taken, but it will show in how the leader(s) walk with head held high, with their morals intact and vision clear.
Integrity also requires that we look inward and judge ourselves by the same standard to which we hold others accountable. We cannot call out questionable behavior if we don’t walk the walk ourselves.
It takes courage to stand by values and speak the unvarnished and uncomfortable truth, but that is when those with such qualities are forged… in moments when it would be easier to spin the truth, avoid a problem or simply go along with the crowd.
An inspiring leader does not walk into a room with their chest puffed out and voice booming, ready to drown out all others. Instead, they enter as an equal, ready to listen, learn and work together for the good of everyone. This brand of person has the humility to remain open to the viewpoints of others, including customers and employees. Staff members should feel secure in voicing opinions and offering feedback, but that requires leaders who can suspend their beliefs and allow others to be heard. No one is right about everything all of the time; if we are too steadfast in “my way or the highway” thinking, we miss out on new perspectives, creative solutions and other invaluable feedback.
Perhaps most importantly, humility means putting self-interests aside in favor of the greater good — an understanding that, at the end of the day, it’s not about us and our aggrandizement, but about the collective’s best interests.
Another characteristic of courageous personalities is that they recognize and reward the achievements of others, even if it comes at the expense of their own time in the limelight. They ask employees what they need and truly listen to their feedback. They also embrace what they do not know, and so are always learning. They come to work not to become more powerful but to work together to achieve a common purpose.
No great leader became great by playing it safe, but there are others, of course, who failed by taking outsized risks before they were ready. The right person finds a balance: They consider the cost/benefits and how risk aligns with values. But once there is a green light, they push forward without fear.
A risk scenario doesn’t have to be something akin to a sky diver jumping out of an airplane at 10,000 feet. Sometimes it’s saying no to a financing offer because it doesn’t match a company’s mission, or it might be persisting through years of setbacks when others would advise throwing in the towel. (James Dyson built more than 5,000 prototypes of his vacuum before getting it right.) It may also mean laying people off to survive, or giving a promising employee a second chance after they make a mistake. Whatever the risk may be, the through-line of courageous leadership is not being afraid to take it, and to do so with values at the forefront.
In the end, it’s important to ask, “Why does one choose to lead? Is it for power and glory or to serve a greater collective purpose?” The glow of the limelight may be tempting, but the people who truly shape the future are those who want to make a better world for others, and are willing to stand up for what they believe is right. These people lead with their hearts and minds, and have enough faith in their vision to take the necessary risks to make it a reality.
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