There's leadership. And, there's courageous leadership.
As I redesign my message on courage to be RESPONSE ABILITY: A Call for Courageous Leadership,
I assert there are some of you who have asked the question, “What the heck is courageous leadership?” This is a very valid question, especially with so many definitions of leadership out there and many of them including some kind of qualifier: ethical leadership, servant leadership, organizational leadership, personal leadership…on and on. So, how is courageous leadership distinct from any general definition of leadership along with any variation of it?
To answer this question, I must first provide my definition and then look at how this stacks up against others. First, to be clear, this is not simply about leadership. It’s not about simply being courageous.
Courageous leadership is standing up, stepping in, and speaking out. That’s it. It’s that simple. Yet, it’s not easy.
I can expand on this by defining courageous leadership as continuously accessing our core strengths; taking actions — standing up, stepping, and speaking out — to intervene in problem situations; and changing lives — first for ourselves, then for others.
For even a broader and more powerful definition, check out The Creed for Courageous Leadership
— the blueprint for this revolution and everything we do. A collection of words that challenges us, inspires us, and moves us to action.
I want to note here that, in some circles, this is called bystander intervention and is the work we have done in RESPONSE ABILITY for the past 12 years (at the writing of this blog post). Taking what we have learned over this period of time, we choose to now call it courageous leadership. It can even be said that courageous leadership is a blend of bystander intervention and leadership development. Same message in a powerful new context.
Let’s continue now with the question, “How is this distinct from any other form of leadership?" To start exploring this, we must look at what is currently out there in terms of what leadership is and how it’s defined. Granted, to cover every single definition would be a book — not a blog post — so we will explore just a couple of them here and expand on this in future blog posts.
The most general definition of leadership I could find states that leadership is, according to M. Chevers, “a process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.” Yet, while it is one of the most popular topics discussed, leadership is largely misunderstood as a concept across all cultures and civilizations. Even with the vast number of research projects, theories, models, and books, there continues to be flawed assumptions and myths. My definition of courageous leadership actually goes against some of these assumptions and even debunks some of these myths.
The first assumption I want to address — and, again, I will be addressing more in the future — is that leadership only pertains to “leading” groups of people within organizations and companies. I was hard pressed to find any studies of leadership that did not involve, in some way, the leading of people within a formal, structured group. Also, while several contexts for leadership have been looked at, none of these have included the “public” context — the “everyday life” context. This assumption leads one to believe that you can only show leadership within an organization, company or structured group — that there are no leadership opportunities involved in the overall living of your personal life. I disagree with this notion.
I believe we all have opportunities in the living of our daily lives to show leadership — to socially influence a situation and cause it to go a different direction than it is predictably going to go — on and off the campus, inside and outside the workplace. In other words, we all have momentary choices where we can either be a passive bystander to a situation — like bullying, hazing, discrimination, sexual harassment or violence, fraud, or any everyday life issue — or we can be a powerful bystander and intervene to prevent, or at least diminish, the problem. Doing so shows leadership. While this kind of leadership can certainly be shown in the workplace or an organization — and it needs to be — it can also be out in life: walking through the park, drinking coffee at a local cafe, having Thanksgiving dinner with family, shopping…anywhere and at any time.
Situations like these call on us to go past our fears and personal shame — to show courage and act. As Ambrose Redmoon says...
Courage is not the absence of fear, it’s the judgment that something else is more important than fear.
In these moments, we get to say what is more important: making the difference or giving into our fear and playing it safe.
Another assumption to traditional definitions of leadership is that you must have at least one follower. I actually agree with this assumption; however, not in the traditional sense.
While you can certainly show leadership to a person or within an established group (organization or workplace), there are moments where leadership has unanticipated and unstructured followers. In moments of time when a problem situation is taking place, it may very well be that you end up leading a group of other bystanders, and even the perpetrator, to following you and having the situation go in a different direction. For instance, when you hear an inappropriate, even offensive, comment be expressed, you can speak out in response to this and lead others, even the person who said it, to see your point of view and alter their actions. By showing leadership in this situation, others followed and you very well prevented, or at least diminished, a harmful situation.
Now, to make this difference and show this kind of leadership, you most likely had to go beyond some kind of fear in order to speak up: fear of being laughed at, fear of being the only one, fear of retaliation…any kind of fear. To get involved and intervene takes courage — not getting rid of your fear but allowing yourself to decide what’s most important and go past any fear you may experience.
This only starts to scratch the surface of distinguishing courageous leadership. This the work I will be doing and I invite your thoughts, opinions, contributions, etc. below in the comment section. Hopefully, by this point, you are starting to see how courageous leadership is distinct. And, it’s simple. It’s powerful. It’s necessary. Yet, it’s not easy. It takes something. Sometimes it takes everything you've got.
It takes us going beyond our own reasons, justifications, excuses, and rationalizations. It takes all of us being willing to step outside of our comfort zone to take effective, appropriate, and safe actions. It takes going from being passive to powerful in life.
It takes us standing up, stepping in, and speaking out.
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