Courage as a Critical Leadership Trait

By Fernie Black

I recently had the fortune of listening to a fireside chat by Barry Posner, co-author of the award-winning and best-selling book, The Leadership Challenge. I was pleasantly and unexpectedly surprised to hear him talk not about leadership in general but about courage specifically. Barry and co-author Jim Kouzes are currently exploring, researching and writing about courage as a critical leadership trait.

As I listened to Barry speak and as I later reflected on what he said and I thought about HR-Fusion's organizational development interactions with client companies it struck me that personal and organizational courage is an underlying trait that is present in effective change initiatives and successful organizational transformations. In the absence of courage, change with the ensuing positive benefits of innovation, continuous improvement and growth will not happen.

Change and Courage

Change, like courage, is about making tough choices, doing the right thing, letting go of the old, facing adversity, enduring, making sacrifices, taking risks, taking initiative to act, and making new things happen!

Posner said 'courage is not about doing business as usual'.

Change and Stress

It would be much easier if we could tell employees to 'get over it' but the reality of human nature is that people deal with change on a very personal level and how well they deal or don't deal with change is dependent on a number of factors generally beyond a leader’s control. What we can control is our own reaction to their reaction!

Keep in mind that leaders and managers are people too and that people in leadership positions are not exempt from the laws of human nature. Despite this, the organization expects the leaders to be change agents, to champion and drive the change and to weather the transition. It is their job to manage resistance and build employee and stakeholder commitment to change and continuous improvement. Yet these individuals themselves may also be dealing with the loss of the good old days. Alternatively, some managers get to acceptance of change really quickly and want others to commit to the new way of doing business and can't understand why others aren't on the same page! What is clear is that in one way or another change is stressful for all employees.    

So, regardless of what position you hold in the organization remember that people respond differently to change - some immediately embrace change and are excited and energized (statistically very few), most lament the loss of the status quo and some engage in very negative responses and sabotage the change or become demotivators. Others will become extremely fearful and overwhelmed to the point of depression and illness. The bottom-line is that most people tend to resist change.

Managing Change

Experts agree that one of the biggest challenges for leaders during a major organizational change and transformation is how to meet the differing and sometimes contradictory needs of individual employees, customers and shareholders. Change experts also agree that the best practice to support successful organizational change is communication and education - provide timely and accurate information to avoid the grapevine and misinformation. And, as a major tenet of any organizational development program - hire the right people! Hire and develop leaders, managers and employees who naturally have resilience for change - flexible, adaptable, risk taker, positive, forward-thinking and courageous.

TIPS for Successful Change Strategies
  • Thoroughly plan for change
  • Involve as many employees as feasible - representative team
  • Select change champions and change agents
  • Resisters play an important role - listen to their point of view
  • Drive the change and influence the outcome
  • Communicate the vision and change plan using different formats - in person/in writing
  • Ask for feedback and sincerely listen - use ideas where appropriate
  • Keep your ear to the ground and an open door policy
  • Update the change plan as needed
  • Communicate some more and get more feedback - not a one time event
  • Say what you mean and mean what you say - don't lie
  • Provide a sense of purpose and meaning for the chaos
  • Demonstrate genuine concern and provide caring support - acknowledge pain
  • Educate staff on change and human nature  
  • Treat employees fairly and consistently
  • Don't give employees reasons to distrust
  • Manage conflict and performance issues immediately
  • Reward and recognize exemplary employees
  • Celebrate the past
  • Celebrate change milestones and accomplishments
  • Proactively hire and develop resilient people

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