I have been thinking about courage as a key attribute of great leadership.

Leading is synonymous with having courage. In simple terms, it takes courage to merely stand alone, make decisions, take action … all of which invite commentary or criticism.

In more complex terms, leadership also requires courage to navigate in ambiguity, to take action with incomplete information, and to take calculated risks that sometimes have uncertain rewards.

At times, leadership must be a lonely place – a place where doubt can seep in, where you surely question the appropriateness of your decision, and the burden of why you, why now, why in this way am I being called to make such a heavy decision.

It reminds me of Shakespeare’s Henry V. You may recall the night before he is to lead his men into heavy battle where many of them are sure to lose their lives, Henry V has a solo scene, a private time for questioning, doubting and unloading his burden. He then returns to his troops to lead them forth into battle, knowing that whatever doubt he carries must be suppressed in order for him to lead, and more importantly, for his men to believe.

Now fair enough, you say, our work lives are not the same as going into battle. Many of us are fortunate and blessed that we are not forced in our work to tackle such difficult decisions involving life or death. However I believe the same lessons of how to show up, how to risk, and how to lead with courage are equally important for us in the 21st century.

The greatest case in point – the American financial services industry. We have witnessed one of the biggest social and economic catastrophes of our lifetime fuelled by a notable lack of courage. There were US regulators trying to sound the alarm. There were plenty of outsiders, including the International Monetary Fund, heads of government, American advocacy groups, all trying to get the attention of the private banks, the Federal Reserve, even the President of the United States.

But it seems not one leader would take action to head off the devastating results.

For all of these outsiders to be concerned tells me that plenty of leaders inside these financial services organizations also knew the danger. They knew something was not right – more than one had a feeling that selling “bad” products to clients and then essentially betting against that same product (insuring against the Bank’s eventual loss when the product failed) was wrong. But times were too good.

Instead of courage, these leaders were consumed with hubris, arrogance and greed. As a result, millions of Americans lost their life savings, their homes and their jobs. Imagine, just imagine, if a senior leader could have courageously stood up to say “hang on, something’s not right here”. Are we doing the “right” thing for our clients? What would our clients think of our actions if they knew? And is it possible, just possible, we have a responsibility to the larger economic system? Maybe, just maybe he or she would have started a discourse that could not be excused, pushed aside or marginalized.

Given the end result, it appears not one senior leader took that risk and kept talking long enough for others to listen.

Don’t get me wrong, I know it would have really taken something to stand up and have that courage, particularly on Wall Street. But in my opinion, that is real leadership. Being someone who recognizes that now is the time and this is the reason to stand up. That is courage in leadership — knowing when and where to take that big calculated risk while also recognizing there is something greater being served by doing it.

This is what great leaders do.

So to that end, we as leaders need to be continually asking ourselves: “as a leader am I standing up for something, weighing the risks and taking those ever important calculated risks? Do I speak up enough and ask critical questions? Where have I become complacent? What could I be doing more of?”

In my opinion, leaders who “go it alone”, carry that burden alone on a dark night, like Henry V, or take that huge calculated risk will be rewarded in the end…..potentially rewarded with tremendous results but also rewarded with loyalty, respect, and admiration.

It is my estimation that history will not be so kind to some of the key players in the US economic collapse. In contrast, leaders who stand up and risk protecting something that is greater than themselves, their ego or their pay cheque — these leaders will be lauded for their integrity and their courage. So should it be.

Guidelines for Every-day Courage in Leadership:

1. Never stop asking the critical questions. Our organizations need us to stay awake and keep asking.

2. Socialize ideas with peers, a mentor or someone you trust. Use their feedback to strengthen your position and influence others.

3. Be sure you know why you are asking the critical questions – this comes back to an idea called positive intent – it can’t just be because you want the next big promotion.

4. Consider timing, as it is important to how something may be received.

5. Never go with the crowd. Trust your gut – your moral character will thank you in the end.

Joanne Spalton, Senior Consultant