Leadership Excellence: Not for the Faint of Heart

“The greatest test of courage is to bear defeat without losing heart.”

Robert Green Ingersoll

A tale from the Far East tells of a mouse that was so terrified of cats he would rarely risk stepping out into the world.

    One day, a local magician agreed to transform the terrified mouse into a cat. This curtailed his fear and the mouse-turned-cat was happy.

That is, until he met a dog.

Now terrified of dogs, the mouse-turned-cat rarely refused to step out into the world. Yet again, the magician agreed to turn him into what he feared most—a dog.

With his latest fear now gone, the mouse-turned-cat-turned-dog was happy.

That is, until he met a lion.

So, once more, the magician agreed to turn the mouse into what he now feared the most—a lion.

Not a week later, the mouse-turned-cat-turned-dog-turned-lion came complaining to the magician that he had met a hunter and was once again afraid. However, this time the magician refused to help him, saying: “I will make you a mouse once again, for though you have the body of a lion, you still have the heart of a mouse.”

Does this tale sound familiar to you? Who might you know that has built a formidable exterior in order to hide a fearful interior? Have you come across any leaders in your career that found it hard not only to make tough decisions, but also to step up and own those decisions? How many leaders have you known who have the roar of a lion in public but the heart of a mouse in private?

Who might you know that has built a formidable exterior in order to hide a fearful interior?

Sadly, I think all of us have encountered people along the way whose fears and insecurities kept them from being the leaders they were capable of becoming—leaders who lack the courage to match their proverbial “talk” to the reality of their “walk.” Men and women who, like the mouse in our story, are content with coming up with countless excuses not to act when doing so is unsettling, uncomfortable, or just plain risky.

Generally, when we think of courage, the words bravery or valor come to mind. And for good reason, as these words describe the type of courage that’s easiest for us to see—frequently portrayed on the nightly news in stories of soldiers selflessly serving their country in harm’s way in such places as Afghanistan and Iraq, or of firemen risking their own well-being to save the life of a total stranger, or of a police officer apprehending a dangerous felon who means harm to others.

This type of visible courage then reflects a willingness to act despite the potentially paralyzing fear of injury or death. In other words, it provides us with the physical fortitude to fight for what’s right, no matter the potential cost to self.

But each and every day in our personal and professional lives, we are afforded opportunities to exercise a different form of courage. Philosophers, theologians, and ethicists like to term this the courage of our convictions or, more commonly, moral courage.

This type of visible courage then reflects a willingness to act despite the potentially paralyzing fear of injury or death.

Moral courage, in the words of Rushworth Kidder and Martha Bracy of the Institute for Global Ethics, is “the quality of mind and spirit that enables someone to face ethical dilemmas and moral wrongdoings firmly and confidently, without flinching or retreating.” Unlike physical courage, which can be displayed equally by those who strive to live honorably and those who do not, moral courage is only exemplified by those who possess the internal strength of character to do what’s right, no matter the potential cost to self.

Of course, understanding what moral courage is and actually positioning ourselves to act courageously when facing uncomfortable, unsettling or just plain undesirable situations are two very different things. This is why years ago I developed a simple series of questions I ask myself each time I find myself tempted to have the roar of a lion in public but the heart of a mouse in private.

What am I Scared of Losing? This may seem a simple question, but we often go through life making choices without fully understanding the real motivation for doing what we are doing. By getting into the habit of taking a moment to genuinely reflect on what we fear we might lose by deciding to act, we help guard ourselves from making short-sighted choices which may result in our leading lives far smaller and narrower than we are capable of living.

What does postponing action cost me financially, emotionally and physically?  Bringing to light what opportunities we will forgo or what it will tangibly cost us to stick with the status quo is proven to be one of the most effective ways to get us to risk moving in a new direction. The simple process of assessing the impact of a missed opportunity challenges us to determine if our rationale for not acting is primarily the result of trying to rationalize away our fear of change or guard ourselves from stepping out in a direction we will likely one day regret.

So What? I’ve repeatedly found that the secret to routinely exercising the courage to be honest with myself about what is holding me back from doing what I know in my heart to be right in the moment is the willingness to adopt a broader perspective of the situation. By consistently challenging myself to focus equally on all that could go right instead of just fixating on everything that might go wrong, I find I’m better equipped to accept responsibility for taking the initiative to lead the change I want to see occur around me.

Over 2,500 years ago, Chinese philosopher Mencius said that courage is an ideal that should fuel all people’s desire and ability to live a life of purpose and meaning. Plato and Socrates considered courage to be not only one of the four cardinal virtues essential to leading a life of unmatched character, but also the grand virtue that made living an honorable life possible. I’m no fancy philosopher, but I certainly consider myself a leader and as such, am committed to ensuring my proverbial “talk” matches the reality of my “walk.”

Can you say the same?

Image credit: germanskydiver / 123RF Stock Photo

John is a widely recognized expert in culture, strategy & individual and organizational change. The senior-curator for GeneralLeadership.com, he is an accomplished unconventional leader and proven status quo buster who has successfully led several multi-billion dollar transformation efforts. His award-winning work has been featured in a wide variety of articles and journals, including the Harvard Business Review. In addition to serving our nation as an active duty General Officer in the United States Air Force, John enjoys helping people learn to walk differently in the world so they can become the best version of themselves possible. He is blessed to be married to the most patient person on the planet and together, they have two amazing sons. You are encouraged to learn more about John at his website, www.MediocreMe.com

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