Caring Over Courage

Leadership is not always easy. In fact, it often involves taking risks. One way to think about leadership is that it’s like walking into and through a fire. You can usually tell when you are leading because you feel the heat or sense the risk. If leadership was easy, everyone would do it, but that’s what makes leadership so important, and often absent – because it’s risky and difficult. One description I have heard of leadership is doing the right thing even when the right thing is challenging or risky. Indeed, leadership is both of those, as well as full of obstacles both mental and physical.

With all these leadership challenges, courage is often at the forefront of conversations relating to what it takes to be a leader. And this makes sense – that you would need to have and show courage in order to take risks, walk through the fire, face challenges and do the right thing even when it’s difficult. While courage is difficult to define or describe, it certainly plays a role in leadership, especially in the moments of uncertainty—and leadership is loaded with uncertainty or fear.

One of the things I often say about leadership is that it’s really not a 24/7 job because your leadership is not required all the time. Most of the time our leadership is not necessary – we can simply do or manage – except in the leadership moments (the moments of decision). What leadership does require is 24/7 awareness (to recognize the leadership moments) and scanning for situations where you and your inner leader are needed. 

So, if courage is only part of the solution for leadership, what else is needed? While there are many key elements for leaders, one that is not often cited is deep care and concern – for others, for your team, for your partner and even for yourself. Most importantly, care for others over yourself. Creating change, standing up for something or someone, and doing what is right in the face of many uncertainties all require that you care enough to step in, act, tell the truth and take the risks. Perhaps caring enough is really the foundation of courage.

As I noted above, I have struggled to find relevant definitions of courage. Merriam-Webster defines courage as: “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.” In other words, courage is the thingthat allows you to venture, persevere and withstand. What this does not define or describe is where that thing comes from or what it is. Rather, in my experience courage is more often a description we put on someone after they have persevered. In other words, we try to define it only by its results.

If I ask someone what courage is, they typically describe a situation where they or someone else had courage. They do not describe what the courage was. Similarly, if I ask someone what it takes to summon up courage, they are rarely able to answer the question unless they are in that moment. Even in that moment, they do not think about what courage is and summon it – they simply take action despite the fears, doubts and risk. 

So, what if courage is really the outcome of caring enough? A parent cares enough for their child that they risk their own life to protect or save the child, and we call it being courageous. A business leader cares enough about her or his team that they will step into a difficult situation and stand up for others. A team member cares enough about the organization’s culture that they will ask the tough questions in order to protect and preserve that culture. You care enough about your relationship with your partner to engage in the difficult conversations in order to make the relationship better and stronger.

While courage will show up in leadership moments, it’s more accurate to say that caring is and will be the foundation of leadership. Yes, those around you may call you courageous, but standing in and walking through the fire of leadership is based upon caring. Caring for others. Caring for the organization or team. Caring about the mission or culture. Caring about people in your life. Even, and perhaps most importantly, caring about yourself and your dreams and desires to do what must be done, to stand your ground, to take the risks and to step forward even when you are uncertain about what lies ahead. This is courage. This is leadership. And caring is at the heart of it, which is why it’s so essential to lead from the heart. The next time you are facing a leadership moment, instead of looking for courage, access and act upon heartfelt caring and watch your leadership blossom into greater influence and impact.

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