Time to Think, Act, and Engage Differently: Courageous Leadership

I’m often asked what makes a great leader; it’s one of the foundational elements of my practice. There are a myriad of agreed-upon traits in the business world that we use to define leadership “greatness” – things like vision, decisiveness, persuasion, communication, and charisma. These are doubtless important and relevant attributes, but as I’ve walked alongside several leaders in pursuit of organizational excellence over the years, I have come to believe that the foremost characteristic in any leader’s arsenal is courage.

Courage is defined as ‘the ability to confront fear, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation.’

Every organization is fraught with “hard stuff” – personnel issues, downturns in revenue, strategic decisions that sometimes don’t work (or make your people unhappy). We have been convinced that it’s better, and certainly easier, to steer clear of the hard stuff and avoid rocking the boat. We put people in different positions rather than let them go. We allow our success to remain marginal because we don’t want to make a risky decision and fail. We pursue peacekeeping instead of transformation within our organizations. A little boat-rocking might be exactly what we need.

Courage is the discipline of thinking differently, acting differently and engaging differently.

Thinking Differently

Recently, we were confronted with a client scenario. A CEO was trying to figure out what to do with an underperforming executive. The CEO’s first instinct was to place the executive elsewhere in the company, when the best solution was probably to let him go.

This is not an uncommon scenario. Leaders often think first about what will be easiest (and often least confrontational), and not on what needs to be done for the success of the organization. Thinking differently, and courageously, involves a reorientation of process.

There are a couple things I encourage a leader to think through when facing a hard decision:

First, what is your desired outcome? What is your ultimate goal as a company? What needs to be done to achieve success? Is the decision you’re contemplating moving you closer to or away from your desired outcome? The harder decision may be the one that aligns more with the ultimate success of your organization.

Second, what are the possibilities? If you make a move one way or the other, what could happen? If you make the hard decision, what opportunities could open up, both to you and to others? It’s key to answer these questions without prejudice or preconceived outcomes, without politics and without personal agenda.

Finally, what are the advantages and limitations of the possibilities? Answer these questions with objectivity, with the greater good in mind and with truth and authenticity.

Acting Differently

Leaders who lead with courage start by working on the inside, and then move to acting in their convictions. As mentioned before, this isn’t the easy way to go. If shifting your way of thinking is hard, acting is harder. It requires investment, and a commitment to go all the way through a process, as painful as it might be. This is the trademark that separates leaders from those just doing a job – true leaders don’t just mull over grand ideas in their corner offices, they strap on their work boots and get messy in pursuit of excellence.

Taking action does not mean bulldozing. Courageous leaders are also compassionate. They know that taking their people into, at times, unknown or uncomfortable territory requires sensitivity and humility, authenticity and integrity.

Engaging Differently

I once worked with an analyst who was very capable at what he did, but was not performing well. We sat down together one day and I asked him: “Is this job what you really want to do?” He said it wasn’t. So I asked: “What would you be doing if you could do anything?” He told me he’d be a restaurant owner. From there, he and I developed a 90-day plan to move him out of our organization and move him towards pursuing his dream of restaurant ownership.

It would have been easy to have an awkward parting with this employee: we could have put him on a performance improvement plan, could have built up the tension with a continued downward slide in performance, and ultimately let him go. But that wouldn’t have been right. What this employee needed was for someone to jump into the mess with him and help him sort it out, to engage him right then and there for his sake and for the sake of the organization.

Courageous engagement is infectious – it will absolutely transform your organization. If you’re leading with openness, transparency, truth and directness, you will see the hope and engagement of those in your organization increase exponentially. People want to work for leaders that care, both for the bottom line and for their people. They will know where you stand based on the quality and genuineness of your engagement.

A year after my hard conversation with the analyst, I got a phone call from him. He shared with me that he was the owner of a restaurant, and thanked me for the transformational conversation that pushed him towards his dream.

We encourage you to pursue courageous leadership.

You can choose to be a courageous leader. Regardless of any business blunders you’ve made (and we all have), you can start turning the ship at any time.


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