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Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership

Courage: Grace under pressure

  • Gerard Seijts
  • |
  • Oct 1, 2019
Courage: Grace under pressure

Character is an indispensable component of sustainable leadership performance.  Ivey research has identified 11 dimensions of leader character: accountability, collaboration, courage, drive, humanity, humility, integrity, judgment, justice, temperance, and transcendence.  In this blog, I explore the dimension of courage.  Individuals with courage do the right thing even though it may be unpopular, actively discouraged, or result in a negative outcome for them. They show an unrelenting determination, confidence, and perseverance in confronting difficult situations, and they rebound quickly from setbacks.  Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela became a symbol of courage for almost everyone.  Malala Yousafzai is a name that is synonymous with courage.  At a young age, she realized that education is essential for girls and women.  She became an activist for female education and began to speak out against suppression in her homeland – Pakistan.  She was shot by a Taliban gunman in 2012.  She survived and went on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.  Greta Thunberg, 16 years old, from Sweden, has been making headlines since 2018 when she took time off school in order to raise global awareness of the problems posed by climate change.  Since then, Thunberg has inspired thousands of people to join her, collecting numerous accolades for her courageous attitude and countless public appearances during which holds politicians to account for their lack of action on the climate crisis.

What happens to an organization when the people within it show courage?  Decisions are made despite uncertainty.  There is opposition to counterproductive behavior and bad decisions.  Politics and bureaucracy wither; innovation thrives.  Adam Silver, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association, has shown a commitment to using the power of sport to effect change beyond the basketball arena.  For example, just two months into his position he penalized then-Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling with an NBA-maximum $2.5 million fine and a lifetime ban.  Sterling was caught on tape making racist comments.  Silver is committed to building a diverse and inclusive league for staff, players and fans alike.  NBA reporter Ramona Shelburne discussed how Silvers actions facilitated an entirely new culture between owners and players.

Conversely, what happens to an organization when people lack courage?  People tend to “go with the flow”—even when the flow is based on bad decisions and headed in a bad direction.  A kind of muteness prevails as people understand that the contrarian view is not welcome.  The two fatal accidents of Boeing 737 Max jets provides a compelling illustration.  The New York Times reported that workers in one of the plants were pushed to maintain an overly ambitious production schedule and fearful of losing their jobs if they raised concerns.  Harvard professor Amy Edmondson explained that this is a textbook case of how the absence of psychological safety — the assurance that one can speak up, offer ideas, point out problems, or deliver bad news without fear of retribution — can lead to disastrous results.

American novelist and short-story writer Ernest Hemingway defined courage as “grace under pressure.”  The compelling thing about that definition is that it brings together both the actor and the act.  A leader who provides true meaning to Hemingway’s definition of courage is New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern.  She showed tremendous courage by exhibiting compassion and vulnerability as well as openness in communication in the aftermath of an unspeakable act of violence.  On March 15, 2019, over 50 people were massacred at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, by a suspected white supremacist.

Arden lead her country with humanity and resolve.  Images of Arden in a headscarf were picked up internationally and have come to symbolise her leadership in the aftermath.  People observed that “her poise, her steely resolve and most importantly her language of inclusiveness and diversity was admirable.”  She reassured the country’s migrant communities that “New Zealand is their home — they are us.”  And she told U.S. President Donald Trump that the only thing she needed from him was “sympathy and love for all Muslim communities.”

Arden called for swift changes to the nation’s gun laws.  Her determination to tighten gun laws amounts to a bold political move in a country where acquiring a semi-automatic weapon is relatively easy.  Arden articulated that the tragedy serves as a transformative moment – “Now is the time for change.”

New Zealand journalist Sam Sachdeva said the tragedy allowed the Arden’s “clarity and decisiveness” to come to the fore, while the New Zealand Herald described her leadership as displaying “solace and steel”.  The Crisis magazine, the publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the US, tweeted of Ardern: “Grace. Dignity. Courage ... Real leaders do exist.”

There will be moments in your personal and professional lives when you have to choose whether to be silent or to stand up.  Courage has always been important to the effective functioning of individuals, teams, organizations, and societies.  But I think we can all come up with at least five reasons why courage is more important than ever before in today’s world.  Yet leading with courage is difficult and requires vulnerability.

I urge you to reflect on three questions.  First, can you think of situations in the past where you did not, in retrospect, match up to your own standards of courage?  What stopped you from doing so?  What did you learn from those incidents?  Second, what acts of courage have you seen in your personal and / or professional lives?  What forces acted on those people to influence their actions?  What did you learn from those people?  Third, how can you encourage those whom you work with to be courageous in their actions?

I invite you to watch a short video of Mona Malone HBA ‘94, Chief Human Resources Officer and Head of People & Culture, BMO Financial Group, in which she reflects on the importance of courage in managing your career.

You can read more about courage in the book Developing Leadership Character written by Ivey Business School professors Mary Crossan, Gerard Seijts and Jeffrey Gandz (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016).