Leadership isn’t easy; it takes courage beyond measure. Leaders showing bravery can be as mundane as suggesting a different intranet platform or as challenging as changing your entire customer service model.
A recent example of daring in leadership is James Comey, former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). No matter how you feel about Comey, you can probably agree he’s made tough decisions. Perhaps you think he made unpopular decisions. That’s true, too. In his latest book, A Higher Loyalty, he says he made those decisions because they were the right thing to do. Comey made hard calls that he believed in, even when he thought he might lose his job.
And that’s what being a leader is all about – demonstrating bravery in decision-making with personal conviction, no matter the odds.
Comey isn’t the only leader to show courage. When you look back through history, bravery is a common leadership trait. Leaders made decisions, even if unpopular — because they believed it was right. There are a variety of examples of leadership when making big decisions and small that had an impact.
Historical examples of leadership and courage
Winston Churchill opted for war
In the 1930s and 1940s, Europeans desperately wanted peace. It was a difficult time; they’d lost vast numbers of young men in World War I. Many politicians ran on a platform of sustained peace, no matter the price. English citizens had not forgotten the sacrifices made, hoping to isolate England from another war.
Not Winston Churchill. Churchill warned that Adolf Hitler was interested in global domination, including the crushing defeat of England. In fact, Churchill fought members of his own party even as they called for a sustained peace.
When Churchill became Prime Minister, he made the courageous and challenging decision — to fight the Nazis without giving up or surrendering. Years later, we know Churchill was right. But his decision was difficult and unpopular at the time.
“We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat
When we think of leadership, we often miss the quiet leaders who make a stand. But often it’s the “ordinary acts” of courage, what we can practice every day, that make the biggest difference.
Rose Parks was an African-American seamstress riding a full bus in the segregated South of 1955. When white passengers entered the bus and needed a place to sit, she was required by law to give up her seat to them. But Parks didn’t think it was right, so she refused.
That refusal sent her to jail and is part of what caused her to lose her job.
And yet that act of civil disobedience inspired others. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. met with her and started a bus boycott that lasted a year. That bus boycott prompted other acts of peaceful civil disobedience and eventually led to equal civil rights and desegregation across the U.S.
Rosa Parks is now known as a leader of the civil rights movement.
“I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.”
Abraham Lincoln fought to keep Americans together and free slaves
Before Abraham Lincoln even took office as President of the United States, South Carolina succeeded from the Union. Soon, other states in the Deep South joined in succession.
The nation was divided … and had been. In fact, even before Andrew Jackson was President, the southern states pushed for more autonomy. They saw themselves as mostly agrarian with differing needs from the northern states. Meanwhile, northern states were becoming more industrialized.
Lincoln had a difficult choice — to allow them to be a separate entity, a confederate, or to fight for a united country. Also at the crux of the issue was what European countries had already done: abolish slavery.
He sent troops to suppress the rebellion and a year later proclaimed that all slaves were free. The war was bloody and many died. But Lincoln knew the price, deciding for posterity that our country needed to be one nation, free of slavery, to survive.
“Courage is not the absence of fear. It is going forward with the face of fear.”
Leadership traits to show courage
What do these examples teach us? So you may not feel as brash as Churchill or as determined as Parks. There are a few things you can emulate that these leaders have in common — despite vastly different situations.
- Listen to others, but trust your moral compass. You know right from wrong and that instinct is why you’re a leader. Don’t do things you know will come back to haunt you.
- Reflect. Though it seems Parks acted impulsively to start the civil rights movement, she didn’t. Instead, she was tired of giving up her seat as she’d done so many times before. In her case, she’d already reflected on the right course of action. Leaders Lincoln and Churchill took their time before making a final decision. They listened to their heart as well as their head.
- Speak your mind. It’s important people understand why you believe what you do. What are the consequences for you, your team or the company? Just think what would’ve happened at Enron if leaders raised ethical issues!
- Stand your ground. When you’ve listened, reflected and spoken aloud, you can’t waffle. People will try to talk you out of your stance. If it’s the right one, stick to your guns.
- Know the consequences and accept the risks. Summoning bravery may have some consequences. You may feel threatened as if you’ll lose your job, perks or friendships. As long as you enter the situation knowing what may happen, you’ll be more prepared.
- Inspire others. When you’re demonstrating leadership by listening, trusting your moral compass, speaking your truth without wavering and accepting risks, you’ll encourage others to do so.
Whether you believe great leaders are born are have greatness thrust upon them, leadership takes courage. Leaders may be physically brave – such Gandhi who used peaceful means even in the face of bodily harm to help India win independence from Great Britain. Or perhaps they’re emotionally courageous – such as Galileo who wouldn’t back down that the sun was the center of our solar system.
The next time you’re asked to do something, think about great leaders — such as Winston Churchill — and muster the bravery to do the right thing.
“People ask the difference between a leader and a boss. The leader leads and the boss drives.” – Theodore Roosevelt