A Time for Courageous Leadership

“If all decisions were made by the following policy or gaining consensus, my secretary could do my job.” The words came from the CEO of a Fortune 100 company at the company’s senior leadership retreat. It got me thinking about what it means to be an effective leader. Not an administrator who seeks policy compliance; not a manager who directs based on the preference of underlings; but someone who makes the tough calls and dicey judgments.

Full disclosure. The impetus for penning this post was prompted by the actions of our president following Charlottesville. They clearly demonstrated a penchant for division and darkness.  I am a moderate Republican, but I could not pull the lever at the ballot box to vote for the current president after his campaign actions seemed devoid of moral character. But, this is not about President Trump or the congressional members who have been safely silent; it is about great leadership.

Effective leaders perform many roles. They shape the vision and direction of the organization. They inspire, align, support, mentor, champion and celebrate. But, the most crucial role of a leader is an unmistakable demonstration of courage. Great leaders stand up and communicate their position, even in the face of criticism or dissent. Great leaders sign their names to issues of principle like John Hancock boldly signed the Declaration of Independence—“There, I guess King George will be able to read that!”

One of my favorite movies is A Few Good Men with Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise, and Demi Moore. The movie is about a military trial of two soldiers who were ordered by their superior officer to physically harm (a code red) another soldier whom the officers considered weak and unfit to be a Marine. The soldier died from wounds exacerbated by a pre-existing condition. At the end of the trial when the two soldiers were acquitted of murder but found guilty of conduct unbecoming of a Marine, one of the two defendants seemed confused, “Colonel Jessup said he ordered the Code Red!  What did we do wrong? We did nothing wrong!” The answer by the other defendant nails what it means to be a true leader.

“Yeah, we did,” said the other soldier finally comprehending what it meant to be a leader. “We were supposed to fight for people who couldn't fight for themselves. We were supposed to fight for Willy.”

Abraham Lincoln was with a company of soldiers on patrol during the Black Hawk War. The company encountered an old Indian whom the soldiers immediately wanted to kill. Lincoln protested. When the soldiers claimed the old Indian was a spy, Lincoln got off his horse and stood between the angry soldiers and the Indian. “Men, this must not be done—he must not be shot and killed by us.” Some of the men told Lincoln his bravery was easy since “You are larger and heavier than we are.” Lincoln’s response: “Choose your weapons; this man will not be harmed.”

We have a scarcity of people in leadership roles who choose rhetoric over valor and color their behavior with political convenience instead of standing up for what is morally right. There are causes that represent “a hill to die on,” not a platform to pontificate on. In the words of John Ellis, in his Fast Company article, “Strategy:”

“Here’s what real business leaders do. They go out and rally the troops, plant the flag, and make a stand. They confront hostile audiences and they deal with the press. If the issue is confidence, they conduct themselves confidently. If the issue is trust, they make their company’s business transparent. If the issue is character, they tell the truth. They do not shirk responsibility; they assume command. Because a fundamental ingredient of business success is leadership. And the granular stuff of leadership is courage, conviction, and character.”