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Courage is the quality that takes leaders from words to deed

Inside the Programme

Courage is the quality that takes leaders from words to deed

Published 27 October 2022

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Contemporary societies face a multitude of intractable problems that threaten many lives and put the prosperity of future generations at risk. From young people in Glasgow holding international leaders accountable on climate change, to South Africans demanding basic services: leaders will need courage to face these problems.

In my view, courage is the leadership characteristic – or more accurately, virtue – that informs and strengthens all others. The word ‘courage’ has its roots in Old French and Latin, denoting the heart, as the seat of feelings. Indeed, courage is the ‘seat’ or foundation out of which all other important tenets of leadership like innovation, integrity, and self-awareness emanate. These traits are fated to wither in the absence of courage.

Courageous leadership should not be confused with sheer fearlessness rather courage is the ability to act in spite of fear. Fear and doubt will always be present especially when dealing with intractable problems. However, courageous leaders recognise that they do not have to identify with their feelings and be overwhelmed by them which impacts their decisions. They know that it’s not thoughts and feelings that bring things to fruition, it’s one’s actions.

I, therefore, think of courageous leaders as those who act, as opposed to those who just talk or think of acting. It is only through action that courage can be embodied and demonstrated.

This idea of courage was brought to the fore during our final module, where we learnt about the concept of ‘stretch collaboration.’ This is an approach to collaboration and problem solving that embraces discord, experimentation, and co-creation. By applying the principles of stretch collaboration, it is possible to get things done in complex situations even with people we don't agree with, like or trust. It is easy to work with those with whom we agree, but it takes a great deal of courage to work towards a solution with people or stakeholders with whom we fundamentally disagree. As such, stretch collaboration requires us to keep moving and iterating with the understanding that we can’t control the future, but that we can influence it through action. The definition of success in this kind of collaboration isn’t to come up with a solution, but to be actively working toward it.

To me, then, courage entails moving beyond the comfort zone of pontification towards action. Courageous leadership means aligning your actions with your values even if this goes against what is popular. It is taking your values and beliefs seriously enough to act upon them.

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