Redefining Courage

In 2007, Robert Eckert, the CEO of Mattel Toys, chose not to recall millions of toys he had learned contained excessive lead.  Instead of doing the right thing and taking responsibility for the products and their failure to comply with safety standards, he blamed the Chinese manufacturers.

While some might argue Eckert was brave to resist a global product recall with huge financial implications for his company and blame the Chinese, most would argue that “courageous and honest leaders do not abandon the principles of their organization’s visions when their efforts to realize the vision suffer setbacks and failures.”[i]

This brings into question our understanding of courage.

Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman suggest that there are four character strengths associated with the virtue of courage[ii]:

  • Bravery
  • Persistence
  • Integrity
  • Vitality

While bravery and persistence are two traits we find easier to identify with courage, many would be surprised to see integrity and vitality. These require a little more explanation.

Being brave is not the same as having no fear, as this would make a person susceptible to real danger.  It recognizes that when leaders ‘stay the course’ and exercise courage in the face of opposition, rejection, and the possibility of failure, there is a risk or vulnerability that can come at a significant cost to the leader, and possibly the organization.  It is at this juncture that a leader’s character and trajectory is defined, along with the organization he or she leads.

This is why I believe Peterson and Seligman include ‘integrity’ as one of the four character strengths of courage.  Integrity is defined as authenticity and honesty; it is about truthfulness and taking responsibility for how one feels and what one does.  It “highlights the need to look for integrity in situations and circumstances in which the easy thing, to do, is not the right thing to do.”[iii]

When we see something wrong, often it is easier to ignore it; when one person speaks poorly about one of your colleagues or peers, it is easier to agree or laugh about it; or when you see some creative adjustments to the latest sales figures you convince yourself that it’s standard practice.

In the same way that bravery and integrity are important elements when a leader has to take a difficult stand on an issue or is weighing up an important decision, ‘vitality’ brings an aspirational quality to a leader’s identity and behavior that is refreshing.  Vitality relates to having a zest for life that is volitional and fulfilling.  When leaders practice courage, there is a vitality and energy that invites and gives inspiration and participation—personally and organizationally.  It empowers.  It is respectful.  It is progressive.  It is not insecure.  It’s truthful.

According to Arménio Rego, Miguel Pina e Cunha, and Stewart Clegg, having this vitality is particularly noteworthy “when displayed in circumstances that are difficult and potentially draining.”[iv]  In other words, courage embraces emerging challenges in such a way that should give life to the organization.

What’s the bottom-line?

As leaders, it’s time to embrace courage as being something much more than being brave and persistent in the face of opposition or setbacks.  Model courage in a way that inspires and gives life to those that work with you and for you.  How do you do that? Here are a few questions to reflect on:

  • Do others see you as someone resistant to change or closed to new ideas or an inspired leader focused on ensuring the vision won’t be derailed?
  • Do you communicate honestly with your colleagues and staff when a difficult decision needs to be made? Do you have a reputation that is considered trustworthy?
  • Do you frequently compromise your values and what is really important to you?

[i] Arménio Rego, Miguel Pina e Cunha, and Stewart Clegg, The Virtues of Leadership: Contemporary Challenges for Global Managers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 73.

[ii] Christopher Peterson and Martin E. P. Seligman, Character, Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2004), 198.

[iii] Peterson and Seligman, 206.

[iv] Arménio Rego, Miguel Pina e Cunha, and Stewart Clegg, 8.

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