The Lesson of Leadership Courage
By Ed Brenegar
Consulting Fellow
Morris Institute

How can people who aspire to successful leadership acquire the courage to take the risks that produce good results? Most of us think that courage is learned in the big questions of life. Do I accept this job, make this move, or change my career path? Those choices do require courage, but the confidence required to act courageously comes from small, everyday decisions. Let me describe how I came to appreciate this truth.

Last year, I had the chance to make a presentation to a group of civic leaders about community building. Little did I know that I would have an opportunity to practice my presentation instead of just presenting it.

I was the second presenter on the agenda, following the Chamber of Commerce's economic development director. For some reason, several members of this group ambushed him in the midst of his presentation. They didn't just disagree with him, but intentionally disrupted his presentation. What should have been an informative session about the community's economic future, became an ugly verbal fight. You can imagine what it would be like to witness the humiliation of this speaker, knowing you were next up.

What I experienced was one of those simple moments of decision that leaders face everday. In retrospect, I see that it was one that required courage. At the time, I thought that what I decided was just the right thing to do. The choice I had to make was, "Do I ignore what has just taken place and proceed with my presentation, or do I shift gears and confront the unacceptible behavior I just witnessed." After speaking briefly to the group's director, I decided that, as an organizational community, they needed to be debriefed about what had just happened.

There were five members of this group of 45 who were the central figures in the ambush of the Chamber representative. I wanted to know what motivated them to treat him so poorly, and what the rest thought of it. My questions were ones of curiosity, rather than accusations. I intentionally focused on the Gang of Five to see whether they could explain their actions to the other members of their group.

It was a risk to put aside my presentation, and confront the group about their behavior. After an hour of discussion, 18 members of the audience had spoken. I then imposed a gag rule permitting only those who had not yet spoken to comment for the next 20 minutes. It was another risk that I felt confident would work because I had tried it successfully in the past. Little did I know the anger that the rest of the group felt toward the Gang of Five and, initially, toward me for disrupting their day of learning about civic leadership. For some of the perpetrators of the ambush, it was an eye-opening experience. They did not have a clue that their actions would not be appreciated. As a result, apologies were made, and one of the Gang offered to write a letter to the presenter. In a two hour span, this group went from the brink of collapse to a level of communication that could not have been possible if I had just given my presentation. It ended up being an example of a courageous risk that worked.

From that one experience, I came to a realization. What leaders need to learn is not so much just how to be courageous. You can go sky dive or bungee jump off a bridge to learn that. What I realized is this: The most important thing to learn is the courage to do the right thing at the right time, despite all pressures to the contrary. The right thing for the group I was visiting that day was for them as a group to work through the conflict that arose because of the actions of a few. As a result of this experience of attempting personally to hold group members accountable for their actions, I have been pleasantly surprised to have one of the Gang of Five become a close friend and client.

Confidence for leaders comes from knowing what is the right thing to do, and taking the risk to do it. It is learned in the day-to-day decisions that require us to be courageous on a small scale. It is the heroism of doing the right thing in daily, unexpected challenges that prepares leaders for the courageous risk-taking that extraordinary circumstances sometimes demand. This is the lesson that successful leaders learn and practice everyday.

Ed Brenegar is Consulting Fellow of the Morris Institute, and President of Community of Leadership, Inc. serving leadership teams in the areas of community building, strategic planning and change management. He can be contacted at 828/693-0720 or at edb3@msn.com.

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