“The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it is conformity.” ~Rollo May
Almost every definition of courage recognizes that courage is not the absence of fear. Without over-emphasizing or being over-dramatic, we all have fears. Some of them are deeply personal and private- self doubt, failure, change, acceptance, self worth, control, etc. These private fears derive from our own experiences and insecurities and we inevitably take them to work with us. These fears might be either exacerbated or soothed by our workplace environment and interactions. In any case, they are always present and we act in response to them in one way or another.
Rather than responding to fears, the challenge as a leader is to act courageously and to foster courage in others.
Act. Courage is action in spite of fear. Fear paralyzes. Fear prevents thinking and reasoning. Fear stifles our voice. Fear is embodied in the silent, empty-eyed and frozen appearance of the proverbial “deer in the headlights.” Just as fear and inaction seal the fate of the deer as a car barrels towards its unwitting target; fear, inaction, and conformity seal the fate of individuals and organizations (although not as suddenly or dramatically.)
Risk making a mistake. Inaction because of the fear of making a mistake is the greatest single cause of mediocrity in the work place. The drive for perfection, when it delays or prevents action out of fear of erring or misjudging, robs a person or team of success rather than ensuring it. When we fail to act in order to avoid embarrassment and the judgment of others if we make a mistake, we reveal fear and weakness. We are saying that we prefer to be passive and mediocre rather than risk success.
Courage recognizes that mistakes and mis-steps are not failures; they represent the opportunity to learn and grow for ourselves and others. Michael Eisner, Disney CEO, is reported to have said “To punish failure is yet another way to encourage mediocrity.” When we recognize that mistakes are an essential part of achieving success and withhold harsh judgments, we empower ourselves and others.
Privilege Principle over Expediency. In the public sector administrators and managers operate by a different set of incentives and motivations than our counterparts in the private sector. Rather than being motivated and incentivized by profits, losses and bonuses, public administrators and elected officials are often motivated by pleasing others and by not causing any waves. Elected officials place great value on the views and desires of their constituents which they weigh heavily when setting policy and making decisions. Administrators tend to be risk averse and generally seek to please as many people as possible- the public, peers, and subordinates.
Perhaps more often than we think, pleasing others and doing the right thing come in conflict, creating a situation in which a choice must be made between expediency (pleasing others) and principle (doing the right thing). Expediency considers each decision in a vacuum with the criterion being the optimal outcome for that specific situation. The criteria for decisions based on expediency are expressed in terms of “Who will benefit?”; “Who will get hurt?”; “Who will be angry?”; “Who will know?”; “How will this affect me?”, etc. The aggregation of decisions based upon expediency result in inequities, inconsistencies, inefficiency, unpredictability, and chaos while maximizing the benefit to the decision maker personally.
On the other hand, decisions based upon principle place self interest in a subordinate position to “doing the right thing.” “Doing the right thing” is another way of describing decisions that treat everyone equally; that enforce or apply rules, policies, ordinances, and laws rather than ignore them. Doing the right thing is consistent over time and across similar cases. Doing the right thing does not always win friends or bring personal rewards. It takes courage to make decisions on principle over expediency when the two are in conflict. It takes a certain courage to even acknowledge that the two are often in conflict.
Have the Courage to Let Go. There is a paradox that the more an administrator wants to touch everything, the more limited and less effective the administrator becomes. There are things that are so important to us, things that are so threatening, and things that are such a source of insecurity that we will not yield control even over them even when clinging to them is counter-productive. For example, when we are jealous of our power and authority we insist on being the final word on everything under our control in order to protect our egos and reputations. We fail to see that this insistence on control actually limits us and increases the probability of some kind of damage to our reputation and standing.
How is that the case? First, it is an inefficient use of an administrator’s time. The administrator can easily become overwhelmed by minutiae and delay important actions and decisions. Insisting on having everything one’s way cuts off the introduction of new ideas and approaches from subordinates. Such control communicates a lack of trust in the judgment and abilities of others and leads to discouragement and the stifling of initiative in the organization. At best, this level of control maintains the status quo. At worst it produces untimely and less than optimal decisions. It leads to staff morale issues and turnover.
Expressing this paradox in terms of its positive rather than negative outcomes, consider the results of giving up some of the things we cling to:
- More authority and control given to subordinates increases the span of control of the administrator.
- More trust in the judgment of subordinates increases the timeliness, quality and quantity of decisions.
- More credit for success given to others reflects more credibility upon the administrator.
- Fewer secrets and proactive, top-down sharing of information results in more timely, accurate and complete information being reported to the administrator.
- Greater transparency in decision making leads to greater confidence and trust in the administrator.
- More kindness and consideration expressed and demonstrated for others leads to more respect being shown to the administrator.
Reward Courage in Others. Our society is quick and willing to recognize and reward heroism but workplace courage is personal and exhibited without fanfare. It is seldom heroic and it is often non-conforming in character. Our culture and bureaucratic environment values and rewards conformity and it is uncomfortable with and often punishes non-conformity. As administrators, one of our obligations as courageous leaders is to foster an environment where the exercise of personal courage by members of our organization is positively recognized and rewarded. This might mean having the courage oneself to intervene and re-characterize the organization’s view of the behavior from disruptive and “boat rocking” to admirable and positive.
The value and need for courageous words, ideas, and actions in the workplace has been unrecognized and undervalued. It appears certain to me than courage begets courage. As leaders, we can foster courage in our organizations by developing and exhibiting greater personal courage to act, to risk, to be principled, to “let go” and to reward courage in others. We can encourage and inspire others to be courageous. We can choose courage to be great or we can choose mediocrity, conformity and expediency.
(Author’s Note: A version of this article was written and published to an audience of public administrators almost exactly four years ago while ramping up for the 2012 Presidential Election. The observations that triggered the article were drawn primarily from the field of election administration but are also representative of conditions in the public sector generally. As election administrators gear up for another, and potentially raucous, presidential election, the moral and practical value of courageous leadership is even more important.)