Everyone admires courageous leaders. But there are different kinds of leadership. To become President of a country or a Chief Executive takes courage because you are in a win-lose competition with other candidates. You put your neck on the line in a very public way. When you campaign for election, you face aggressive opposition and intense scrutiny of your life and track record. It also takes courage to champion unpopular ideas in the face of severe opposition.
Courage is required for any competition. When you apply for a job, you are in a public race that only one person can win. You need courage to enter the fray and to face your supporters if you lose.
What about the courage of Martin Luther King? He was assassinated despite his courage and attacked in a number of other ways. To stand up for your beliefs and values in front of an angry mob takes a lot of courage. But this situation is different. King wasn’t competing with other candidates for election to a position. He was simply challenging the status quo to promote a better way of living.
Not many people have this much courage. It is because it is so rare that we admire people who have it. Courageous leaders in business, politics or war are naturally seen as heroes.
Developing Your Leadership Courage
The key to developing your courage to lead is to start small. It takes much less courage to compete for a first line supervisory position than it does to be President of your country. Similarly, you don’t need to lead civil rights marches like Martin Luther King to challenge the status quo. Whatever job you do, you will have ideas on how it could be done better. Do you have the courage to make suggestions for improvement to your boss? If you do, then you have sufficient courage to show some small scale leadership in your own local environment. The amount of courage you need to question existing practices also depends on the way you express your challenge. If you speak aggressively in a meeting with your boss and colleagues, you need to be very courageous. However, if you have a quiet word with your boss alone, it is not so risky. Even here, you could be confrontational or you could take a low-key approach and simply ask your boss what he or she thinks about a certain idea you have. If your tone of voice is one of asking for advice rather than aggressively saying the boss is wrong, then you don’t need to be quite so courageous.
Leadership Requires Challenging the Status Quo
All leaders have a better idea. They want to change the world. It takes leadership confidence to stick your neck out. To be a leader, you need to build your confidence to question the way things are done. The easiest way to start is to make quiet, non-confrontational suggestions and see how it goes. You need to see these actions as showing leadership, even if they are on a very small scale. Once you have gained some confidence on small issues, try scaling up to larger matters. If you think a particular stand you want to take is high risk, try it out on a friendly audience before you go to your boss or other prominent stakeholders. With subtle influencing skills, built mainly on using clever questions, you might even get your target audience to think it was their idea.
Like Martin Luther King, you can show leadership every day in all sorts of ways by suggesting a better way or even just by setting a good example. You don’t need to be in charge of the people you are trying to lead to show this sort of leadership. Remember, Martin Luther King showed leadership to the U.S. Supreme Court when his demonstrations influenced them to outlaw segregation on buses, and they did not report to him.
Large scale courage is heroic, but it isn’t necessary for everyday acts of leadership.