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Leadership & Courage

Courage is a trait possessed by all great leaders. So much so, that leadership absent courage is nothing short of a farce. Let me be very clear – I’m not advocating for bravado, arrogance, or an overabundance of hubris, but the courage necessary to stay the course and to do the right things. Standing behind decisions that everyone supports doesn’t particularly require a lot of chutzpa. On the other hand, standing behind what one believes is the right decision in the face of tremendous controversy is the stuff great leaders are made of. I believe it was Aristotle who referred to courage as the first virtue, because it makes all of the other virtues possible.

It takes courage to break from the norm, challenge the status quo, seek new opportunities, cut your losses, make the tough decision, listen rather than speak, admit your faults, forgive the faults of others, not allow failure to dampen your spirit, stand for those not capable of standing for themselves, and to remain true to your core values. You can do none of these things without courage. Courage is having the strength of conviction to do the right thing when it would just be easier to do things right.

The best thing about courage is that a lack thereof can be overcome. Courage is teachable and therefore it is learnable – proof of this can be found in every instance of overcoming a fear. Courage should not be defined as the absence of fear – that’s ignorance. Courage is finding the strength to move ahead in the presence of fear. In short, courage isn’t a skill, it is a decision. Here’s the thing – we’ll all be remembered for the decisions we make or don’t make, and the courage we display or we fail to exercise. Leaders who consistently demonstrate courage will stand apart from the masses, and earn the trust and loyalty of those whom they lead. As a general rule, most people can be characterized by their courage or their lack thereof:

  • In the corporate world those who demonstrate courage stand apart as innovators and opinion leaders, those who display a lack of courage are viewed as  “yes men” who are the politically correct defenders of status quo.
  • In the military great courage is often referred to as heroism, while a lack of courage will brand you a coward.
  • On the stage of world affairs those who display courage are statesmen, and those who don’t are politicians.
  • In relationships courage will show you to be a trusted friend, whereas the absence of courage will reveal you as a gossip, adversary, or even enemy.

Each day brings with it a new set of challenges, and the best any of us can hope for is that we will have the courage and character to stand behind our personal beliefs and convictions regardless of public opinion or outcome. Courage will make you faithful, where a lack thereof will cause you to be fearful. Whether you look back on your personal experience or a greater historical reference, you’ll find it is always better to stand for courage than regret failing to do so.


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    Michael J. Devine

    April 13, 2011 at 10:27 am

    Mike –

    You are on target. True courage in leadership is found in the little things and allows you to follow that moral compass that gets the team from point a to point b without the compromise of integrity or standards.

    A mentor once told me to judge my leaders (or people posing as leaders) by whether or not they would “come get you in a fight.” The phrase is a colorful one and a product of Army culture, but his message was really about judging my leadership’s courage to stay the course, underwrite my organizations mistakes and stand behind my decisions when things got rocky.

    Now more than 10 years later when I mentor my own teams I often tell them that “I will come get you in a fight” and use that phrase to open the open the dialogue about my expectations of the courage and integrity levels I expect from my leaders.

    One thing I’d add is the importance of ensuring that your courage is guided by a clear set of values that align with the organization’s mission. Without clearly understood values and this alignment the courage can rapidly be interpreted by others (and your team) as craziness.

    Thx for the post!

    Michael J. Devine III

    twitter @defendsfreedom2


      Amy Balog

      April 13, 2011 at 12:41 pm

      Excellent reply Michael to Mike’s post. And appreciate the line, “I’ll come get you in a fight.” That is putting simple language around a fundamental leadership skill which is to effectively navigate challenge and conflict. Great leaders manage to come out of those “fights” with more connections than burnt bridges – they earn respect with how they approach the challenge dialogue.

      Some leaders like to talk boldy on the surface of issues but when it comes down to testing their metal with real action – they change lines – or struggle to navigate the discussions that so sorely need to take place. I have found this comes down often to emotional needs and views around personal leadership safety. I created a test on my latest blog to help leaders take a reflective view of their true safety set point and to honestly examine the beliefs, worries, and/or fears that impact courage.

      You are also correct in the point that leaders must know your values – in the front end of every executive engagement I have the leaders I work with complete a value’s exercise so they have the list in clear and personal terms -then I ask them to share it with their people.

      Enjoyed participating in this post – am an avid follower of Mike’s great thoughts.


      See my blog at http://connextionpoint.typepad.com


        Mike Myatt

        April 13, 2011 at 4:09 pm

        Michael and Amy – Thanks so much for raising the issue of the willingness to come to the aid of others at your own personal risk as a sound definition for courage. This strikes very close to home for all of us who have served or have family who have served. My son is an active duty Air Force EOD officer. He’s the guy that straps on a bomb suit and walks toward a life and death scenario while others are moving in the opposite direction. It takes a special person to place their live in harms way to save another. These are the best and brightest examples of leaders who define courage in action.


    Mark Oakes

    April 13, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    Another excellent post, Mike!

    “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Prov 29:18). In a typical leadership context, Courage is facilitated by seeing the destination first.. and then simply taking the first step… and the next… etc. Leaders never see the entire path. This, by definition, is why courage is an essential character quality.

    Is courage essential: ABSOLUTELY! However, we need to be careful not to glamorize the word ‘Courage’ by viewing it through an opposing lens of ‘Risk’. A common perception is that the greater the risk the more courage we need. This is a somewhat dicey association; especialy in the context of a leader’s vision.

    Finally, and in another context, I think it’s important that we understand the linkage between ‘Courage’ and ‘Faith’. Real courage is taking God at his word, recognizing that he directs our steps and then taking that first step. Now that’s real courage!



      Mike Myatt

      April 13, 2011 at 3:32 pm

      Thanks for sharing your observations Mark. As you point out, the relationship between ‘courage’ and ‘faith’ speaks volumes. I also appreciated you differentiating between courage and risk tolerance. Taking unwarranted risks doesn’t mean you’re courageous, but may well be an indication of foolhardiness. Thanks Mark.


    William Powell

    April 13, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    Courage, or lack of, reveals someone’s agenda, character and/or priorities, in my opinion. If you’re more focused on being accepted than doing what is right, then your lack of courage will show that to the world.

    Our decisions and subsequent actions put our beliefs, character and priorities on display, whether we want them to or not. Great post Mike!


      Mike Myatt

      April 13, 2011 at 3:27 pm

      Hi William:

      Spot-on as usual Sir. A person’s actions always speak louder than their rhetoric. Thanks for stopping by William.



    April 13, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    Great blog Mike. I find that many leaders lose their courage when they fall under personal scrutiny. Several leaders that I work with lose the courage to lead effectively when criticized or corrected. I realize this is based in self esteem issues, but I believe it results in a loss to maintain personal courage. Courage has the ability to conquer fear and other emotional enemies, including personal attack. Your blog says is best!

    Always value your opinion and the courage to write it!


      Mike Myatt

      April 13, 2011 at 3:26 pm

      Thanks for the kind words as well as your insights Tom. I agree that self-esteem can play into this at several different levels. Thanks for sharing Tom.


    Dan Rockwell

    April 13, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    Hi Mike,

    It feels redundant to repeat how I enjoy your blog. However, I do. In addition, I love your long sentence …

    “It takes courage to break from the norm, challenge the status quo, seek new opportunities, cut your losses, make the tough decision, listen rather than speak, admit your faults, forgive the faults of others, not allow failure to dampen your spirit, stand for those not capable of standing for themselves, and to remain true to your core values.”

    That’s two paragraph’s for me. 🙂

    It took me many years to courageously face resistance during “peace-time.” When discussions about a new initiative met resistance, I’d listen and let the initiative die. I realize now how foolish that is. I think I just validated your statement that courage is a decision.

    Best Regards,


    P.S. It takes courage to write a sentence with 58 words in it! It scares me. 😉

    P.S.S. I did a quick search but couldn’t determine the longest sentence in literature. Best guess its at least 1,000 words. Having said that, and after due consideration, a call with my wife, a walk in the park to mull things over, and then a quick bite to eat along with a foot rub and manicure while watching the birds on the bird feeder eat fresh sunflower seeds and wonder if a sunflower seed had feelings, I decided a 58 word sentence was only mildly courageous. (all in fun)


      Mike Myatt

      April 13, 2011 at 5:01 pm

      Thanks for both the kind words as well as the literary admonition. Perhaps I need to revisit my post on the benefits of brevity.:) My weakness as a writer is known far and wide – especially to frequent readers of this blog. All kidding aside, I’m not going to be too critical of the sentence in question as it expresses points worthy of consideration and reflection. Thanks for stopping by Dan…


    Mike Myatt

    April 13, 2011 at 5:03 pm

    Hi Geoff:

    Thanks for the keen insights and observations. Please feel free to respond to this comment and leave the link to your latest post so that readers may benefit from your research. Thanks Geoff…


    James Strock

    April 13, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    Wonderful post, Mike!

    Courage is so indispensable to leadership that we tend to recognize and respect it even in “leaders” who have otherwise lost their way….

    It may be useful to recall that the derivation of the word comes from the French word for “heart.” That is, it’s ultimately about a love–for a nation, a family, a comrade-in-arms, a friend, even a stranger–that overpowers any remnants of self-concern, even when the stakes are as high as they can be.

    The most important point may be your terrific summary: courage is not a skill so much as a decision.

    It’s a decision that may arrive unbidden, without time for reflection. Thus various writers have written of two-a.m. or three-a.m. courage as its height. The virtues required for such instantaneous action–a “moment of truth”–have likely been honed and planned in forethought long before (which of course is one reason why so many of our ancestors chose their reading and sources of thought so methodically).

    Thanks for a wonderful, thought-provoking post!


      Mike Myatt

      April 14, 2011 at 7:28 pm

      Hi Jim:

      Thanks for sharing your astute observations. You and I are big fans of history, and as you so eloquently point out, historical perspective on this topic is well worth considering. Thanks Jim.


    Wally Bock

    April 14, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    Great post and discussion, Mike. The British used to have an expression about how to judge a potential Prime Minister: “Would you go on a tiger hunt with this person?” Ernest Hemingway said that courage was “Grace under pressure.”

    My core definition of courage is “doing the right thing when it’s dangerous.” An awful lot of that happens where no one sees but you.


      Mike Myatt

      April 14, 2011 at 7:25 pm

      Hi Wally:

      Thanks for sharing the two great quotes – love them both. That said, my favorite was your core definition and the insights about the choices made when no one is watching. Thanks Wally.



    April 18, 2011 at 1:42 am

    Leadership and courage go hand-by-hand, when you have a vision to make it a reality you have to challenge teh status quo, first by changing You, by not accepting things the way they are, then you will surely get a lot of reluctance from others, most people do not like change, most people love the status quo. When you lead your life, your family, your business unit, your department, your company – you will need courage to drive change, to change the culture of the old ways of doing things for the new way. You have to sell the vision by doing it first and teaching the how…to duplicate your self to lead others.

    […] PS:  For a great real-life story of courage and leadership, read Mike Myatt’s great piece. […]

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