Students of the discipline of leadership frequently debate which of the many traits among leaders is the most important leadership trait to possess. There is an argument for integrity, but we have all seen that men and women can inspire people in one facet of life whilst being untrue to themselves and others in other more compartmentalized places. There is an argument for vision. Clearly an important and vital component of a leader. Without a clear depiction of what you are working towards, it can be difficult to lead people to the promised land. Each of the critical characteristics or traits carries their own weight, value and relative importance. When you compare even a handful of the known leadership luminaries, like King, Gandhi and Mandela, there is one trait which rises above all others and that is the trait of COURAGE.
If there was an international monument dedicated to the art of leadership, few could argue about the presence of a King, Gandhi or Mandela enshrined on its face. These men challenged an existing long-standing system in a time when all who challenged the same system met with a level of resistance that appeared to be insurmountable and could potentially result in death. How did these men know the time was right for the kind of change they were advocating? How could they have known the lasting impact their courage would have on the world’s populations? How did they know to press forward, no matter what was in store for them personally? I would assert that the source of their strength was the presence of courage.
These men chose to pursue their beliefs in the face of herculean obstacles; in the face of near certain death or in the case of Mandela, potential lifelong imprisonment. Only courage allowed them to pursue their dreams and push their vision of what their respective societies could be. Not only did they clearly see what these societies could be like, they also had the courage of their beliefs to pursue this vision at any cost. And have no doubt, each of them suffered for their vision and still possessed the courage to follow it.
Looking back, it all seems to make sense to us in retrospect. Of course self-governance for a nation of people made sense; of course people should be treated equally regardless of their religious affiliation or the color of their skin; of course the rights of man extend to all peoples. How could we ever have believed differently? How can we still believe differently?
We are bombarded with images and ideas about what courage looks like from movies, television and books, but it’s quite rare to see it up close and personal, especially in today’s high-tech/physically distant world. We can be highly courageous and thoughtful from afar thanks to social media (sarcasm alert). Men and women who have served their countries in war zones have likely seen it. Men and women who serve in the ranks of the world’s policemen, fire and emergency responders have likely seen it. Families show courage in the face of illness and adversity nearly everyday when they choose to press on. But what about the typical day-to-day business person or our politicians? Politicians are frequently called upon to show courage and they seem to frequently find a way to side-step the issues of our day or simply not engage? We have become highly suspicious of people in designated leadership roles and rightfully so. Real courage is rare and when employed makes a real difference in people’s lives. It is not a commonly held trait.
From my observations and study, courage wins the day among the essential qualities of a leader. It is the MVP of leadership characteristics. Through courage people are able to cross impassible barriers; overcome insurmountable odds and achieve that which cannot be achieved. Maybe we can all hope to have a chance to show our courage in this lifetime. Will you be able to recognize your moment?
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