Courage is the enforcing virtue, the one that makes possible all the other virtues common to exceptional leaders: honesty, integrity, confidence, compassion, and humility. In short, leaders who lack courage aren’t leaders.
When we hear the word “courage,” we may think of a military person performing an act of bravery or a police officer or firefighter risking his or her life in the line of duty. John McCain reminds us that courage is an essential virtue for organizational leaders as well. But McCain takes an even bolder step and asserts that courage is the one virtue that makes all other virtues possible. Let’s consider.
Honesty. Courageous leaders speak the truth and are willing to talk straight with others. They don’t hoard information, choosing instead to share freely what they know and don’t know, and always encouraging a free exchange of ideas and opinions. Courageous leaders make it safe for others to express themselves, never using information to gain power or to win at all costs. And when the challenges seem insurmountable, courageous leaders make it a priority to be even more straightforward with others…and with themselves. Like us, they know how difficult it is for us to be honest with ourselves.
Integrity. Courage enables leaders to stand up and speak up for what they believe – for their principles, for ethical behavior, and for their own core values. Courageous leaders have the guts to hold on to their core values when those values are tested or challenged, especially when they are tested. We admire these leaders because they walk their talk and talk their walk. They demonstrate the courage of their convictions and we trust them to do or say what is right. Think of the times we knew something or someone was wrong, and suspected others did too, but didn’t speak up. We need to ask ourselves: Is this the right solution or the easy solution?
Confidence. We often hear that courage is not the absence of fear, but the capacity and willingness to act decisively despite our fears. Perhaps not surprisingly, leaders are often afraid; but fear is a prerequisite for their courage to manifest. Courageous leaders are able overcome their fears, summon the strength to silence their inner voice demanding they do nothing, and take action despite their fears. Something deep within them awakens and they are able to be their own best selves. Courage enables us also to reveal our own convictions, self-assurance, and confidence.
Listening. Although McCain does not mention courage as a condition of listening, I believe that it is. It takes courage to pay deep, genuine attention to others – our eyes wide open and seeing, our minds open and learning, our hearts open and feeling. After all, the origin of the word courage is from the French word for heart – coer. In our 24/7 world of instant, constant communication, it takes courage to tune out the noise and clutter, and focus on people’s words, facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice to genuinely hear what’s being said. It’s time to stop passively listening or worse yet, just pretending to listen.
Humility. And lastly, courage enables leaders to show their humility and vulnerability. When leaders have the courage to step outside their comfort zone and take a healthy risk, people are attracted to them and will do almost anything, including taking risks themselves, to help the leader succeed. Likewise, when we have the courage to act in the service of others rather than for personal gain, we are able to demonstrate humility, and others are drawn to us.
So whether or not we agree with John McCain that courage is he “enforcing virtue,” I believe we can agree that it’s an essential virtue. Perhaps Winston Churchill summed it up best:
Courage is the first of human qualities…because it guarantees all the others. ~Winston Churchill