Why Courageous Leaders Are Vulnerable

“We can’t afford to take the risk.”

“If I follow through with this decision, I run the risk of losing the support of my staff.”

“I wish I had made the decision to set aside budget for innovation when we were in a comfortable position. I didn’t anticipate that sales would be down. Now I have no new products to invigorate growth.”

“If only I had apologized when I had the opportunity. I didn’t anticipate losing such a talented member of the team.”


Many leaders have lost sleep reflecting on decisions they need to make, sometimes requiring great courage.

According to Alexandre Havard, “courage helps leaders avoid rationalizations, overcome their fear of mistakes, enact decisions with dispatch, and persevere when the going gets tough.”  He goes on to say, “If my values are skewed, I will not be courageous, although I may be tough.” [i]

There are times when in the face of discouragement, vilification, rejection, failures, and obstacles, courage is needed to persevere boldly rather than seek an easier path.  This reveals the important link between maintaining the integrity of their conscience and their resilience. This is the opposite of what we have seen from more populist and charismatic leaders who are constantly seeking the approval of others, sometimes leading them to compromise what they know is the right thing to do.

It’s important, however, to understand that courage is rarely practiced in isolation from other key virtues such as prudence, self-control, humility, and justice. For example, to boldly pursue a decision without first thinking through the implications of how it will impact staff or the company’s long-term strategy is not being courageous; it is simply irresponsible. In How the Mighty Fall, Jim Collins calls this “arrogant neglect.”[ii]

There are times when our analysis and judgment of a situation shows us that certain decisions need to be made even if everyone will not share the same view. To overlook such decisions merely because they make us feel uncomfortable or unpopular with staff in the short-term allows our own insecurities and fears to rule our decisions, undermining our leadership and effectiveness, not forgetting the damage done to our character.

Vulnerability is not the enemy of courage

 Josef Peiper uses “fortitude” in place of “courage” and suggests that it cannot exist without a person first feeling vulnerable.[iii]

I like Peiper’s description. Courageous leaders must first ‘feel’ the impact certain decisions will have on the welfare of others. They are not oblivious or ignorant about the results. They anticipate what needs may arise from making such decisions and seek to mitigate the effect of such decisions as much as they can.

It is not often that we would associate the word ‘courage’ with empathy, but this is exactly what Peiper advocates. It is here that the virtues of justice and of humility also come into play. Courageous leaders are not malevolent or autocratic leaders who sit at the top of the pyramid and revel in their power; instead they exercise what power they have to bring balance, perspective, fairness in hiring, equality of opportunities, and to create an environment where all staff are empowered and resourced to achieve the desired outcomes.

What’s the bottom-line?

Exercising courage is not something that happens easily for most, and we frequently need to be asking ourselves some confronting questions. It’s also a good idea to process something like this with a trusted mentor or coach who will give you an honest appraisal. Some important questions include:

  • Is the approval of others holding me back from making a good decision?
  • Do I take responsibility for the consequences of my decisions when they don’t go as planned, or do I find someone else to blame?
  • Do I take adequate time to assess the impact of my decisions and their implications on others?


[i] Alexandre Havard, Virtuous Leadership: An Agenda for Personal Excellence (New York: Scepter Publishers, 2007), 72.

[ii] Jim Collins, How the Mighty Fall And Why Some Companies Never Give In (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009), 29.

[iii] Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), 117.

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