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Courage, Leadership and Adversity

All leaders will at some point face organizational intransigence, a stubborn resistance to move forward in the face of adversity. What happens in this crucial moment can make or break a leader, and make or break his/her influence with the team.

Intransigence can come from a variety of sources. Low morale. Poor business conditions. Competition that seems to beat us at every turn. Regardless of the source, it almost always takes the form of organizational paralysis, and it is deadly.

When (not if) it comes, what example will you set? Will you rise to the occasion and act boldly such that your team is inspired to action? Or will you hunker down and hope for the best?

I just completed two biographies on the military and civilian leadership of Julius Caesar. Caesar is one of the greatest military geniuses of all time, and a brilliant reformer of the Roman political system. No story illustrates the power of bold action in the face of intransigence more than the Battle of Munda, fought in Spain. For Caesar, his actions in Munda gave him the leverage he needed to unlock his organization’s motivation.

After many victorious campaigns, the Roman army was physically and mentally exhausted and refused orders by Caesar to advance. His men simply stopped, and Caesar was infuriated. Caesar knew that timing was crucial, and their opportunity would be lost if they failed to act quickly. What happened next would become legend.

So, what did Caesar do? He decided if his army refused to attack, he would do it alone. And so, he tore off his helmet, tossed it aside and charged headlong uphill toward the enemy army – alone.

The shock of seeing their commander charge into battle alone shook his men from their torpor, and they frantically rushed forward to keep up with him. The result? Caesar’s army claimed victory that day.

However, to end the story there would be to miss the most important truth. His army did not just win a battle, they won their pride and honor back, and morale surged. Bold action is the great restorer of confidence, and Caesar understood this better than anyone.

During tense and complex situations, it is tempting for leaders to withdraw and insulate themselves from the fray. After all, fear is a natural response to adversity. Fear itself is not the problem. Rather, it is the absence of courage that is the problem. Courage is the ability to overcome fear when it matters most.

Great leaders have courage – courage to act boldly in the face of adversity, courage to confront the brutal facts with optimism, and courage to lead from the front to set the example when their people need them most.


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