How to be a Courageous Leader: The difference between good and bad leadership

by Bharati Thakore, Visionary Education and Communication Strategist

Courageous leaders are few and far between.

In the VUCA world of competitiveness, economic uncertainty and technological change while people say they want positive and caring leaders, we tend to choose or follow a very different kind of leader. We hire and promote the sociopaths, the bullies and autocrats who create unsafe environments of shame, fear and prey on people’s vulnerabilities for their self-interest. Courageous leaders are in high demand and short supply, it takes an exceptional leader to step forward, take risks and lead change during downturns, though history has shown it is these people who win as the economy rebounds.

Demonstrating brave leadership is easier said than done – having difficult conversations, communicating when you don’t have all the answers, not allowing fear mongers to run amok is scary and takes deep guts. Most often in these situations, people tend to keep their heads down and their mouths shut in order to survive. This not only applies to the rank and file, but to management as well.

Fear is potent emotion - it takes a compelling 'Why' to dig deep and find the courage to step through it. If you are committed to breaking apart from the pack, or have the power to reform your organization - you can start by instilling these hallmarks of brave leaders.

  • Courageous Leadership: 5 hallmarks of truly brave leaders Courageous Leaders have a moral compass

Integrity is a key quality for leaders, and it is possible to hire people for whom moral identity and ethics are important. That being said, good people do bad things sometimes, as we are all vulnerable to rationalizing our own behaviors. Remember that 90% of us believe we are above average drivers! So we need transparency, openness and a willingness to be asked the hard questions from our team. Your morals are innate and intuitive. Thinking either of those happens passively is a huge mistake. Things become second nature only through habit. Ask yourself how you are habitually expressing your morals or values as leader. How consistent are you in stating what they are? When's the last time you wrote them down? If you're not specific/intentional, then you're not following your compass

Business educators have downplayed the self-inquiry, self-reflection, and sometimes personal transformation required for leaders to develop ethical judgment. Too rarely does our education focus on personal learning – on developing the mindset and values consistent with the responsibilities of leadership, when these values are not unpacked it can lead to toxicity in leadership. Their capacity to manage these complexities will be critical to their success in treating others with dignity and acting ethically throughout their careers.

  • Courageous leaders seek out dissenters and foster inclusion

Brave leaders create the psychological safety needed for those with less power to disagree with them and speak candidly. It’s why brave leaders actively work to create a 'culture of courage' where people are encouraged to speak up, challenge old thinking, experiment with new ideas, risk mistakes and prioritize growth and contribution over security and comfort. And when things don’t go to plan?  They make generous assumptions to leverage the shared learning so they can ‘fail forward’ together.

Many leaders have no idea about the feelings and fears of employees right outside their cabins. Leaders must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings, or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behavior. The governing board must have ongoing access to the feelings, insights and concerns of those below the CEO, as well as to external groups of stakeholders, shareholders, customers and so on and not only hear it from the CEO. A "good" (in every sense of the term) CEO will facilitate that process; a bad one will feel threatened by it. A good board will seek such a process; a bad board would see it as a burden.

  •  Courageous Leaders extend trust

Brave leaders are delegators, not micro-managers. They focus on where they add optimal value and entrust others to get on with their jobs. While they are happy to help out, they leave people to solve their own problems and resist the urge to jump in and solve them for them. People play safe when they feel unsafe not to - when leaders focus on the consequences of failure, it drives risk aversion. Google’s five year study on highly productive teams, Project Aristotle, found that psychological safety ---- team members feeling safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other – was “far and away the most important of the five dynamics that set successful teams apart” Leaders who replace the armor of knowing with becoming a curious learner can create a culture that makes curiosity skills a priority. Acknowledge and reward great questions and “I don’t know but I’d like to find out” as daring leadership behaviors and create a safe space for such discussions.

  •  Courageous Leaders stop cheap seat criticism

Brene Brown’s book Dare to Lead opens with Roosevelt’s quote “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.” Innovation is hindered by allowing criticism from the cheap seats –  from those who didn’t do the work. Insecure CEOs and bosses use criticism as a weapon to create fear and reinstate them as the “knower” or always being right. “It’s defensiveness, it’s posturing, and, worst of all, it’s a huge driver of bullshit ” says Brene Brown. 

Two forms of criticism that can be hard to recognize: nostalgia and invisible army. When a new idea hits the table – “we’ve never done it that way using history to criticize different thinking. We can also be the invisible army: “We don’t want to change course” or “We don’t like your tone in emails” I hate the invisible army – who is we? You got a mouse in your pocket?” Voicing and owning our concern is brave. Pretending that we represent a lot of folks when we don’t is cheap-seat behavior.

In my company New Millennium Education Partners, you aren’t allowed to criticize without offering a solution --- if you’re going to tear something down, you have to offer a specific plan for how you will help the person do it better.

  •  Modeling and supporting rest, play and recovery

We are currently going through a cultural crisis around busyness and sleep deprivation. We struggle as a society around pegging our self-worth to our net-worth and this can lead to disease both mental and physiological and to putting the bottom line ahead of ethics and relationships. When worthiness is a function of productivity, we lose the ability to pump the breaks: The idea of doing something that doesn’t add to the company balance sheet provokes stress and anxiety.

As leaders of an organization we have to weave healthy behaviors into office culture and model appropriate boundaries by shutting of email at a reasonable time and focusing on themselves and our families. We have to let go of exhaustion, busyness and productivity as status symbols and measures of self-worth. We are impressing no one. Do not celebrate people who work through the weekend, who brag about being chained to their desk. Research shows ‘Play’ shapes our brain, fosters empathy, helps us navigate complex social groups and is at the core of creativity and innovation, this is what we want from employees and colleagues’ not human robots. 

5 signs that you’re not a leader

Everybody thinks they’re a leader – most are far from it. The harsh reality is that we live in a world awash with wannabe leaders. Perhaps a more telling issue in today’s world is many of those desiring to get ahead, have no desire to help others get ahead. Practically everyone has a horror story of working for a terrible leader, myself included. I’m always amazed at the people in leadership positions that shouldn’t be. Are they really the right people for those positions or have they hustled their way to the top. In fact, research conducted on the topic of poor management has coined a term for it: toxic leadership. Though the definition can vary, a toxic leader is typically someone whose behaviors can damage and even destroy the organization and the people within it in the long term.

You’re not a leader if:

  1. You get mediocre results – Real leaders perform and constant exceed expectations. There are leaders who consciously feed employees/management illusions of the pot of gold at the end of the tunnel that enhance the leaders power and impair the management/followers capacity to act independently. (e.g. persuading management that you are the only one who can save them or the organization)
  2.  You are a bully- Manipulator leaders are the smoothest of bullies. If the only way you can solve the deficit described in point #1 above is through dissembling or skull duggery you’re not a leader. The ends don’t justify the means. If you abuse your influence, don’t treat people well, or confuse manipulation with leadership, you may win a few battles, but you’ll lose the war. Perception over honesty never ends well, and being guileful doesn’t make you a leader.
  3. You take credit instead of giving it: True leadership isn’t found seeking the spotlight, but seeking to shine the spotlight on others. Toxic leaders fear becoming less valued if their underlings get any recognition for exemplary work and are backstabbers who will go to frightening lengths to look good to their superiors. Good Leaders only use “I” when accepting responsibility for failures. Likewise, they are quick to use “we” when referring to successes.
  4. You put people in boxes: Stop telling people why they can’t do something and show them how they can. Leaders don’t put people in boxes, it’s their obligation to free them from boxes. True leadership is about helping people reach places they didn’t know they could go.
  5. Weaponizing fear and uncertainty- In the midst of uncertainty and fear, leaders have an ethical responsibility to hold their people in discomfort --- to acknowledge the tumult but not fan it. The CEO in my previous organization was a master at inflating and fanning discomfort. Daring leaders acknowledge, name and normalize discord and difference without fueling divisiveness or benefiting from it.

Bharati Thakore is an education personality, film-maker and bestselling author, and the award-winning CEO of New Millennium Education Partners, she has aptly been dubbed the “A driver to educational transformation in India” by Google Education and the “Iconic Women creating a better world for All” by Women Economic Forum.