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Do You Have the Leadership Trait 
Required for Tough Times?

By Mike Staver

What is the most important leadership trait for surviving our tough-as-nails economy? Some leaders might guess intuition (for knowing where to take their company next) or persuasiveness (for getting others to go along with them) or resourcefulness (for getting more bang from very limited bucks). While those things are important, they are not the most important. The most critical leadership trait—the one without which none of the others matter—is something they’re more likely to associate with four-star generals or firefighters than with leaders.  It is Courage.

Here’s the thing about operating in a harsh business environment: there are serious consequences for making the wrong move. The safety net just isn’t there. And because competition is so fierce and customers are so savvy, leaders may have to make some pretty risky choices to differentiate themselves. Otherwise they’re a nonentity—and their career and maybe even their company may fail.

Fortunately, there is some good news. Courage is not a quality that people are born with. It can be developed and nurtured. And if leaders commit to leading with courage, and consciously work toward that goal every day in every decision they make and every action they take, acting courageously will soon become an automatic response.

Courage is about clarity and mindfulness—clarity as to what you believe and mindfulness in the execution of those beliefs in the culture. I would rather a leader stand up and say that he will adjust his values based on the circumstances and do whatever he feels like doing because he really doesn’t care than to have a leader espouse a set of values and then live out of alignment with them. People crave courageous leadership.

In my coaching work I measure the courage of a leader in several ways:

1. The level of clarity regarding the heart and soul of the leadership message.

  • To what extent is your message clear and inspiring?

  • To what extent is it understood and actionable?

  • To what extent does it resonate throughout the culture?

  • To what extent is it relevant to the culture, the customer, and the follower?

2. The degree to which the followers are engaged in the strategy.

  • To what extent do the followers see how they fit in/contribute to the vision?

  • To what extent do you ask for input from your followers?

  • To what extent are you flexible in your strategy as long as the outcome is assured?

3. The degree of action orientation.

  • To what extent does the leader work diligently to remove obstacles?

  • To what extent is the leader relentless about quickness in decision making and execution?

  • To what extent does the leader insist on accountability and results over effort?

There are two sides to leadership: scientific and artistic. The scientific side encompasses everything a leader has to do every day to execute the fundamental processes or systems of the business. The artistic side is all about answering questions like: What are my values and how do I communicate them to the culture? How do I connect what I believe with my company’s mission? How do I create the right kind of culture for the people who follow me? What type of experience do I need to be creating for my followers so that they have the greatest chances for success?

Courage takes place on the artistic and scientific sides of leadership. The path to courageous leadership has six components. If you want an easy way to remember them, try using the acronym “ATTACK”:

A: Accept Your Current Circumstances. I have found that most leaders either overestimate or underestimate the health of their current culture. Very few people have a realistic grasp on it. Leaders need to look reality in the face and accept it. By the way, this does not mean they should “settle.” Accepting that they have a less-than-ideal corporate culture is the first step toward changing that culture for the better. They should ask themselves this question: What am I  pretending not to know?

T: Take Responsibility. A courageous leader is willing to own the results of his or her choices. They shouldn’t blame the market or interest rates or any other outside conditions for circumstances inside the company’s culture. As a leader, they’re their responsibility. That doesn’t mean every problem their company has is their “fault,” of course. But if they fail to do anything about it, that is their fault. Responsibility is not about blame; it is about response. Leaders should own what is theirs.

T: Take Action. Leaders are never going to have all the data necessary to make the kinds of decisions they need to make. They have to act in spite of that fact. And even if they do have the data, they must be courageous enough not to feel that they have to have every “t” crossed and every “i” dotted before they pull the trigger. However, they should make sure every action they take is in line with where their heart is, where their values are, and where their culture is—or more accurately, where they want their culture to be in the future. Analyze the pitfalls and act quickly.

A: Acknowledge Progress. Many leaders are so goal-oriented that they can’t really see the individual steps of the process. They should determine the desirable results, determine the benchmarks, and be certain that those benchmarks are acknowledged and celebrated when they are achieved. They should celebrate them with the same energy and enthusiasm as they would if the goal were already accomplished.

C: Commit to Lifelong Learning. Leaders are constantly learning. If they’re not learning, they’re not leading, regardless of their title. So many executives get into a leadership role and have the sense that they have “arrived.” That’s the death knell for leadership success. Leaders must commit themselves to learning on three levels: learn about themselves first, their people second, and their industry third. The extent to which they do these things, in that order, is the extent to which they’re going to exhibit courage.

K: Kindle Relationships. Courageous leaders are constantly developing people, engaging people, caring about people’s progress. This does not mean they should gather their employees around in a circle, have them put their arms around each other, and lead them all in singing Kum Ba Yah. Nothing could be further from the truth! Courageous leadership doesn’t mean softening their approach with people. It actually means toughening their approach. It means confronting people, challenging people, not letting them get away with being less than they know they can be.

Let me leave all leaders with one more thought: they are who they are, both at work and at home. If they are trying to live in two separate worlds—being one person in their personal life and a different person in their professional life—they’re on the path to destruction. I help clients integrate what they actually believe with how they behave at work and how their culture behaves. Everything works together to create a life, their life.

Read other articles and learn more about Michael Staver.

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