What The World Needs Now Is Leadership Courage

October 22, 2019

“These are the times that try men’s souls.”

Philosopher Thomas Paine wrote those immortal words during the American Revolution – and they strike me as being fitting to the moment we’re all living in today.

Seeking to inspire American colonists to overcome their profound fears about the imminent war with the British, Paine put truth right out in the open. “No, this won’t be easy,” he implied. “The outcome is uncertain – and the victory we all hope for will require extraordinary courage above all else.”

To be a leader in any capacity today demands no less valor and grit. It’s irrefutable that none of us has ever faced the extraordinary challenges associated with the Coronavirus pandemic. And suffice to say, how each of us performs during this crisis will become a defining moment of our careers.

With the goal of helping you rise to the occasion and lead your people with the heart of a lion or lioness, I have some guidance to share:

Empathize; Don’t Judge:

At the grocery store recently, a woman ahead of me on the check-out line had so many raw carrots in her shopping cart that I was prompted to ask if she owned a horse. I asked the question to amuse myself, but I received a life-lesson in response. “I know all these carrots make me look crazy,” she told me. “They said we needed to have a lot food in the house to get through the next few weeks and I just panicked.”

I honestly wanted to give this woman a hug, but I simply told her that we’re all feeling overwhelmed and I was sure she’d find creative ways for her family to enjoy all those carrots. I was also reminded that everyone is doing their best in highly confusing times.

Remember Emotions Are Contagious:

A lot of us are marinating in fear right now. Amongst many other things, we’re afraid of catching the virus ourselves and of how bad the epidemic will become. We’re worried about how we’ll pay our bills – and whether we’ll be able to retire – and how we’ll get all our work done while caring for children at home at the same time.

According to Yale University, there are three things that make fear spiral out of control in society. (1) When we’re dealing with something “unpredictable.” (2) When we’re dealing with something “uncontrollable.” And, (3) when we’re dealing with something that’s “sustained and chronic.”

Based on this definition, we’ve already hit the trifecta – and leaders are called upon to be the antidote – the vaccine:

Everywhere we go – and for as far as our voice carries – we must be the consistent and uninterrupted voice of hope and optimism. Napoleon taught us that “Leaders are dealers in hope,” and Victor Hugo assured us that “Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.” So now is a time to inspire – and to breathe life and strength into the hearts of others.

Be There For Others No Matter What:

Last week, right before publishing a new episode of my podcast, I asked my wife if I should put the series on hiatus. She looked at me incredulously and asked me why I’d do that?” “People just have so much going on that I wonder if they have time to listen,” I replied.

“But you have people who count on these,” she insisted. “So even if fewer people listen in overall, you must be there for them!”

My wife’s reminder to me was that leaders must be a steady rock. No matter what’s happening in our own lives, we must give to and support our people. I’m reminded of the firemen in northern California who last summer kept fighting to save their neighbor’s homes after learning their own homes had just burned down.

Display Boundless Kindness

In his commencement speech at Syracuse University, National Book Award winning author, George Saunders told graduates that the biggest regrets of his life had all been “failures of kindness.”

I’m absolutely certain that what people will remember most about the times we’re in right now is how their bosses and organizations made them feel.

People are stressed and overwhelmed which is why taking a moment to be kind will surely stand out. The truth is we remember people with great fondness who display grace and warmth when they themselves are enduring disquieting times.

And so, in the words of George Saunders, this is the time to bring out “that luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul if you will – that is bright and shiny as any that has ever been, and share its fruits tirelessly.”

Display Boundless Kindness, Part II

According to Stanford University Medical School Neurosurgery professor, Dr. James Doty, the timing for being kind to others couldn’t be greater – because it happens to have a profoundly positive impact on our own well-being. His research proves that “being kind positively impacts our own physical and mental health. Showing others compassion or acting kind can actually change our physiology by taking our brain that’s been over-taken by a “threat mode” and returning it to its natural, calm and effective state.” Ironically, through our own kindness, we take ourselves out of our own fears which helps us process information more clearly and make better leadership choices.

Let Others Help You Lead

In that new podcast my wife urged me to publish, Stanford Business School leadership professor, Deb Gruenfeld says that wise managers know how to adapt to the environments they’re in – and to shift their use of power accordingly.

This proves to be a rather timely insight with so many people working remotely in a period of heightened ambiguity.  What this moment calls for then is for leaders to cede more power to their teams and to involve them in key decision making.  It’s a time to express that we don’t have all the answers – and to treat people more like equals than subordinates. Some managers will fear appearing weak by doing this, but to paraphrase Voltaire, “humans respect those who seek the truth far more than those who claim to have found it.”

Keep People Feeling Connected

In their recent book, “Nine Lies About Work,” Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall assert that – even in normal times – people don’t want direction and guidance from their bosses so much as they want their attention. In light of this, they advise managers to schedule at least one weekly call with every direct report they have, and to never break the commitment.

With employees scattered all over, and with no central place to connect, feelings of loneliness are surely creeping in. So, making the best use of video conferencing technology to bring teams together is the bare minimum right now.

A friend of mine on Twitter told me that her organization asked all of its managers to write and mail a handwritten note to each person on their team every week – just to show them how much they are appreciated, valued and loved. Our sense of belonging to a tribe is being deeply wounded right now, and uncommon gestures like these don’t just help heal, they motivate.

Be Courageous

I once had a colleague who routinely waited for his peers to act before he’d take action himself. We worked together for years, and I never saw him take a big risk or introduce an innovation. He was driven by a need to make the safest bets, and what he clearly lacked was leadership courage.

The word “courage” comes from the latin word, “cour,” meaning “heart.” So, this isn’t a time for leaders to sit back and wait for direction – it’s a time to act swiftly on what our hearts guide us to do, and to trust it. One thing is for sure, in the environment we’re living in right now, very tough decisions must be made. And leaders who succeed will do so because they acted with speed, not because they were always right.

To conclude, I’ll leave you with the words of the Cowardly Lion in the “Wizard of Oz:”

“What makes a king out of a slave? Courage!” 

What makes the flag on a mast to wave? Courage!”

“What makes an elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist or the dusky dusk? Courage!”

And looking back on these these turbulent and ambiguous times, what will have ensured your leadership success ?  COURAGE!

By Mark C. Crowley

Mark C. Crowley is the author of Lead From The Heart: Transformational Leadership For The 21st Century which has been taught in 11 American universities. He is a global speaker, leadership consultant and thought leader on the topics of workplace culture and employee engagement.