America’s corporate courage crisis: Building your courage quotient

“The most powerful agent of growth and transformation is something much more basic than any technique: a change of heart.” — John Welwood

Corporate America has a leadership crisis. New start-ups are at an all-time low. Anxiety is rampant. As those in leadership roles cling to the deceptive safety of the status quo, we see sub-optimization in performance, resilience, and growth. My 30 years of experience as a business consultant, working with more than ten thousand executives across 200+ companies has confirmed for me that executives are not failing due to a lack of IQ or ambition.

Most every failure was due to a lack of emotional intelligence, of nerve – in which one or more key acts of courage were missing. I’m not the first to point this out: Fortune magazine’s June 1999 article “Why CEOs Fail” came to the same conclusion. Where courage stops is where effective leadership stops.

Courage comes from the French coeur, meaning heart. Yet intelligent, ambitious, astute senior executives underperform or outright fail due to a lack of “heart.” It is not helpful, however, to simply say, “You need more courage.” It is more useful to realize that there are at least seven distinct types of acts of courage and to explore which have been mastered and can be leveraged as strengths, and which need development – as soon as possible.

Just one example: a CEO, extremely smart, competent and empowering of subordinates, was willing to hear the bad news and took pride in not micromanaging. This worked well until excessive conflict hit his management team. Two powerful executives were at loggerheads and the team took cover, sub-optimizing, getting little done while key decisions were not being made. The CEO lacked the courage to confront an executive in a position of influence with a key customer. Nine months after failing to take action, his Board of Directors fired him. This, unfortunately, is not an exception. Are you respectfully and clearly confronting those you need to hold accountable?

Knowing that there are distinct key acts of courage allows you to calibrate, refine and then focus on exercising the form of courage you most need for your leadership development. Leadership is a learnable art form more than a science. One of the fundamental requirements of leadership is that of exercising the right act of courage when it is called for. Knowing the different acts of courage allows systematic development of the one where you are weakest. Take a moment to look at the following seven acts of courage and evaluate yourself where 1 is very weak and 7 is extremely strong (you are a role model for others.)

From The 7 Acts of Courage

1) The Courage to Dream & Express It: (vision, big goals, putting it out there)

2) The Courage to See Current Reality: (seeing strengths, weaknesses, the state of your business, your career, your family, your life; taking any blinders off)

3) The Courage to Confront: (telling “truth to power” per the Quakers, willing to confront up, to speak up with respect, seizing the moment to offer coaching insights, ideas, suggestions)

4) The Courage to Be Confronted: (to listen non-defensively to criticism, learning from critiques, listening to learn, seeking out the “bad” news, asking for contrary viewpoints, rewarding people for speaking up)

5) The Courage to Learn and Grow: (stepping into the unknown, tolerating ambiguity and uncertainty, taking calculated risks, giving up any addiction to “being right” instead focusing on the bigger win, willing to “lose a battle to win a war”)

6) The Courage to Be Vulnerable: (asking for help, letting others know they are needed, open to the passion, wild ideas and strengths of others, emotionally open and present)

7) The Courage to Act: (putting yourself in “harm’s way,” stepping up when needed, willing to commit, follow through, moving through resistance and fear in the moment to do the right thing)

Do you know which of the above seven key acts of courage are most often missing or least developed in senior executives and thus in their organizations? Most of the leaders and managers with whom I have worked over the decades have the courage to dream, see current reality, learn and grow, and take action.

What has tripped up the vast majority has been: The fear of confronting – a boss, a key peer or powerful influence leader, the fear of being confronted – of being seen as “weak,” coming across as defensive and not actively seeking out the bad news, and the fear of being open and vulnerable. If you ranked yourself lowest for any of these three, you are in good company with the majority of executives in corporate America. Whether it is one of these three, or any other act of courage that you rated the lowest, take note: This is your Achilles Heel that will keep you from hitting your full leadership stride.

Are you ready to leverage the acts of courage you are strongest in while working on the act(s) you have least developed? What you will not face or address will cost you most dearly. As James Baldwin wisely wrote, “Not everything you face can be changed, but nothing can be changed until you face it.”

Are you ready to face what needs to be changed in your Courage Quotient? Do you have the heart to address it, to be your best?

Robert “Dusty” Staub, is an international speaker, best-selling author, and the CEO of Staub Leadership International – a business consulting company that trains executives and teams in creating high-performance outcomes.