Elephant Leaders are Courageous

Are you comfortable in your role as a leader?  Are you content, is your business on cruise control?  This is a dangerous place to be, my friend. Contentment in leadership is the enemy of excellence, and the friend of mediocrity. True leaders are uncomfortable. Confident? Yes. Focused? Yes. But uncomfortable, because they have a vision that has not yet been reached.  Uncomfortable because they know that they can better serve their customers, improve their services, and get more out of their teams. True leaders embrace this discomfort, this discontent.  It motivates them. It is a reminder of who and where they are, a reminder that they have a purpose.

In order to fulfill your purpose as a leader in this environment of discomfort, you must have courage, that rare quality that is the hallmark of true leadership:

  • Courage to be Visionary. Without a vision, there is no sense of direction, nothing on which to focus. As a leader, you must have the courage to cast a vision and then to single-mindedly work towards that vision. Others will only buy into a vision after they are convinced that you as their leader is committed to the vision.
  • Courage to Innovate. In Dealing With Darwin, Geoffrey Moore argues that lack of innovation leads to commoditization. Commoditization in turn leads to competing on price alone, which is not a good place to be as a business.  With innovation, businesses are able to differentiate and then to compete based on that differentiation. Because the marketplace is continually evolving, innovation is a continuous process.  You must have courage to overcome the inertia of what works for your business today, and look for the next innovation that will further differentiate you from your competition.  I guarantee you that your competitors are not standing still!
  • Courage to Act. Once you have cast a vision, you must be committed to making the tough decisions required to realize that vision.  More importantly, you must be willing to act on those decisions and take responsibility for their consequences, good or bad. If you do not follow through on your decisions, you will eventually lose credibility with others.
  • Moral Courage. As a leader, you must have the courage to stand for what you believe, for what you know is right.  You must have the conviction to do this even when you stand alone.  Are you even willing to put your job on the line if necessary to preserve your moral integrity?  If not, then perhaps you shouldn’t be leading. In time you won’t be leading, because if you lack moral courage others will soon lose faith in you as a leader.
  • Courage to Fail. Quite often leaders do not execute on decisions because they are afraid of failure. The truth is that failure is inevitable, and necessary for an organization to learn. The best organizations learn from the failures of others and fail faster themselves in order to minimize the cost of learning from those failures.  Not only should you expect failure, but you should also create a culture where failure is accepted.  Removing the fear of failure from an organization encourages employees to openly communicate those failures (rather than hiding them to avoid punishment), which in turn facilitates the learning process.
  • Courage to be Transparent. You must have the courage to admit when you are wrong. I am not talking about failure here, I am talking about making a decision based on wrong motives, failing to give credit where credit is due, or misleading others with half truths. Leaders make mistakes of judgment, motive, and omission just like everyone else.  Hopefully, you as a leader have learned from the mistakes of your past and make fewer of them today.  At the very least, you should be constantly on guard against these kinds of mistakes and transparent about them when they happen. If not, you will eventually lose the trust of others.

Elephant leaders are courageous. They must be because, quite frankly, it takes courage to lead.  Courage is what sets true leaders apart from those who simply happen to fill leadership positions. Many, perhaps even most, people in leadership positions are not willing to step out of their comfort zone to make unpopular decisions, to stand against the majority because of what they know is right.  They choose comfort over courage because leading with courage is hard. What they may not realize is that they are also choosing mediocrity over excellence; over time, mediocrity results in failure.

In this microwave world of instant gratification, in this relativistic world of doing what “feels” best, we need more courageous leaders.  Courage is required for travel on the path to excellence. I challenge you to honestly assess your own leadership, and commit yourself to leading courageously.

Leaving a Legacy

Grandpa Walter.  He was a WWII veteran, a surgeon technician at Omaha Beach on D-Day.  He returned to his parents after the war, became a father to three children and grandfather to many more.  In his seventies, his wife passed away and he remarried my wife’s grandmother, as her husband had passed away as well.  Although he was not biologically their ancestor, Walter Hartsock was the only great grandfather that my children have ever known.

Grandpa Walter was special.  Why?  Because he was a man of integrity.  He spoke softly, but his word was his word…you could depend on it.  When he spoke, you were confident in the truth of the words spoken.  He was absolutely loyal — to his family, his community and his country — and for that he was loved by all.

This man of integrity passed away recently at the admirable age of 101.  His funeral was a celebration of a rare, extraordinary life.  One of his grandsons spoke at the funeral; he is an all-Ohio high school football player, Ohio State University national champion and eight year NFL veteran.  To this grandson, Walter was simply “grandpa”. His conclusion in considering his grandpa’s life was that he had left the most important legacy of all…his family and the integrity and values that he had instilled in them through the example of his life.  The grandson’s wish, with tears in his eyes and a quivering lip, was that he would leave the same legacy for his children and grandchildren when his life was at its end.

What is true in life is also true in business and in professional services.  As John Maxwell writes in his excellent book Developing the Leader Within You, “Image is what people think we are. Integrity is what we really are.” Furthermore, and with respect to leadership he says, “Everything rises and falls on leadership. The secret to rising and not falling is integrity.”

Everyday as professional services leaders, we are faced with numerous decisions.  Our goal should be to lead with integrity, and to make these decisions with that same integrity.  Let us lead such that we are creating a legacy.