Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been a truth-seeker who is obsessed with figuring out life. I would frequent the local used book stores in town, devouring books and taking notes on everything I learned. Academically, I pursued this understanding by studying philosophy, and eventually earning both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in psychology. The real learning came, however, when I started traveling.
What I love most about traveling is that you can find out what in life is universal, and what is cultural or unique to where you grew up. What I wanted to understand most from traveling the world was this: Are there any character traits that are universally valued or prized across all cultures?
In other words, I wanted to know which of the values, virtues, and vices in my worldview were universal to every human, and which were just there because of where and how I grew up. For instance, was being nice universally good? Some would say “of course”, while some fervently believe that “nice guys finish last.” Another example is how I grew up thinking yelling loudly was rude, while my significant other, a New Yorker from a large family, grew up with yelling being the only way to be heard. Volume too, it turns out, was cultural, not universal.
In grad school, I was lucky to have access to psychological research on cross-cultural differences, which just increased my fascination with the quest of finding a “universal” trait. Particularly interesting were the studies on indigenous civilizations that were isolated from the “modern” world. After grad school I spent a year living in Europe, and later a year in Central America as well, all the while keeping meticulous notes on what values seemed universal rather than culturally derived. After 10 years, my quest ended with a single trait that appeared to me to be the only characteristic that seemed universally desirable across every culture.
That trait was courage.
For the sake of this article, let’s define courage as the confidence and ability to do what you think is right in the face of danger, difficulty, or pain. We should also balance that with an example of what courage is not, which is being an arrogant jerk or unnecessarily mean.
Finally, to round out our definition of courage, it’s always good to highlight what the opposite of courage is, which is cowardice. Put simply, the opposite of courage is choosing to not do what’s right because of the danger, difficulty, or pain doing the right thing would entail.
Why is Courage Important?
Courage is not just one of the only universally applauded human qualities, it is absolutely a prerequisite to becoming a great leader in the modern era. Further, the higher you go up the corporate ladder, the more courage is required to be great at your job. With each new level, courage is not only more vital, but also more difficult and risky.
First of all, the bigger your team or higher your title, the more impact your courage, or lack thereof, will have. For instance, when I was leading a team of 100+ as an IT Director, every decision I made or avoided making in our org would impact 100 other co-workers.
In IT, courage has an even bigger ripple effect, since most of the businesses we support now need IT to keep the lights on, and provide a competitive edge and real productivity improvements. In other words, your decision to do or not do what’s right will impact, in many cases, every single worker at the company.
How courageous the IT leadership is will arguably have a more significant impact on the company than the leaders of most other orgs within the company.
Why Courage is Hard
Philosophically, most leaders reading this would say they’re on board with doing the right thing in spite of consequences if you asked them. The higher up the food chain your career takes you, however, the bigger the danger, difficulty, and pain you will face with each decision.
Think about a level one technician. If you are capable of providing IT support, you are basically guaranteed job security. There are always more openings than there are talent to fill those roles, especially now that so many more companies are open to having a remote workforce. But as an IT manager, there is a lot more competition for your role, both internally and externally, because the number of management jobs is much lower. Same thing for IT directors, and even VPs. By the time you make it to the C-Level, there are so few CIO roles out there compared to the workers that want that title, even some of the greatest CIOs can spend months, even years before finding their next gig.
With lucrative job openings in such short supply, it’s no wonder that courage is lacking in the C-Suite for IT executives. The unfortunate truth is that in that rarified air, there are many IT leaders who seem to value retaining their jobs, salaries, and stock options over doing what’s right for the company or its people. Without a huge amount of courage, it’s very easy to become risk averse. The problem is that without the courage to risk failure, optics, and your reputation to do the right thing, your org will be innovation-starved, with low employee engagement and the risk of developing an unpleasant, unhealthy team culture.
How to Become A Courageous Leader
To quote the band Rush, “If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.”
No one is accidentally courageous, especially when the stakes are high and the danger, difficulty, or pain you are facing becomes more intense or consequential. The first step is to take a moment to decide how courageous you are willing to be. How much difficulty, pain, or danger are you willing to face to do the right thing at work? Are you willing to sit in a dozen extra meetings with recruiting and HR to make sure your team’s salaries are where they should be? Are you willing to have difficult conversations or admit you’re wrong even when you can get away with avoiding the pain of doing so? Are you willing to risk your job, livelihood, and financial security to do what you believe is right? If not, where do you draw the line?
If you decide how courageous you want to be now, you have time to work toward developing into the kind of leader you want to be. If you wait until you’re faced with those hard situations, it’s much harder to muster the courage in real time when facing real threats to your livelihood, security, and happiness.
Once you’ve decided how courageous you want to be, that decision will become part of your identity, and intuitively you will start living out that value system in real life.
Call To Action
Before I write anything for HDI, I have a trusted group of colleagues that I call to get their perspective on whatever the article’s topic is. When I asked this crew about courage, the most animated parts of those conversations centered around the biggest benefit of courageous leadership, which is how inspiring courage is to others in and outside of your team. When a leader does something courageous, when they do the right thing in the face of real consequences or challenges, there is an energy that flows through the entire team. Nothing is more inspiring than that. The loyalty, trust, and performance that comes as a result will empower your team to accomplish incredible, innovative things that teams under a less courageous leader will never get to experience.
Put simply, be courageous and you will be an awesome leader. Sure, being a leader increases the risks of doing what you think is right, but it also increases the reward when you take that risk and win. There are a million niche qualities that may or may not make you a better leader, but if you want a sure thing, decide to be courageous and put that into practice. Your team, and your future self, will love you for it.
Ben Brennan is the founder of QSTAC, Inc. and the author of Badass IT Support.