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Wanted: leaders with courage

By Ray Weekes - posted Friday, 25 October 2002

It was Tom Peters, in an article in the Harvard Business Review on what makes a successful leader, who concluded that great leaders were frighteningly smart, had tons of animal energy, were blessed with monumental impatience, were able to distil a vision for their troops, recognised and resolved the big issues, maintained a healthy disgust for bureaucracy, were performance freaks, were honest, straightforward straight shooters, were rapidly decisive and were future focused, not report- or past-oriented. Also great leaders were rigorous in their own execution and follow-up and were highly driven. This individual leader exists largely in Tom Peters' imagination.

Realistically a leader can be some of those things all of the time and all of those things some of the time. But one of the true virtues of leadership is missing from Tom Peters' rather colourful list - courage. This was recognised by Defence Force Chief, Major General Peter Cosgrove, in an address to the QUT Business Leaders' Forum in 2000 on his leadership experiences. He gave four essential elements of leadership - integrity, humility, compassion and courage.

For the Greek philosophers, courage was one of the cardinal virtues. It depends on justice and has two subsets: physical and moral. It is moral courage that we appropriately address in the business context.


Courage in business leadership is expressed in many ways. It can be changing a vision and strategy. It can be maintaining an ethical stance in the face of personal risks. Courage can be a key factor in driving out the fear that is prevalent in many companies. It can be about holding to a strategic choice and transformation efforts in the face of severe questioning from industry analysts and others.

Courage for a business leader can be confronting employees directly affected by your downsizing decisions and making yourself vulnerable to their criticisms and anger. Courage is caring enough about your values that you uphold these in the face of risks. Leadership is about change and it takes real courage, at times, to maintain your resolve when the real risks of change become blindingly apparent.

A successful leader today must have a capacity to realistically assess him or herself and understand the personal values that truly matter in corporate behaviours. Self awareness and deeply held beliefs are essential elements of courage, the very essence of leadership. Courageous acts are taken by self-aware people with fully meshed values.

Neither courage nor leadership can be founded on the action of an individual who lacks self-awareness. Without self awareness, these actions would fall somewhat closer to rashness. For outstanding leaders to exercise courage, it follows that courage in any context, whether it be in the business arena, political sphere or whatever, it needs to be underpinned by certain personal characteristics of the individual - that are derived from an unsparing self examination.

Courage in political leadership is setting a direction for the long term and taking people with you. Many view the style of political leadership today as more cautious, less prepared to get ahead of the pack and less reformist. Our political leaders, at times, are less prepared to truly lead in a bold, audacious manner and seem to look sideways or in the rear-vision mirror to decide where to go next.

In the television series "Yes Minister", the senior public servant Humphrey, in his attempt to dissuade the Minister from proceeding with a particular action, would say, "Oh, yes Minister, that would be terribly courageous!" In the political sense, Humphrey equated courage with naiveté or rashness.


Former Prime Minister Paul Keating singled out two key elements of leadership - imagination and courage. Keating said: "between the conception and the execution, there is faith, hope and courage. Leaders fail when they imagine things but don't do them. We have to be bold and faithful to ourselves."

Paul Keating's Press Secretary, Don Watson, in his recent memoir Recollections of a Bleeding Heart emphasised the importance of courage in Keating's leadership style, saying that "courage was Keating's hallmark and his stock in trade, whereas for some politicians it is nous, charm or practicality. Keating had these other attributes but it did not define him in a way that courage did. Courage was a prime element in the Keating mythos and a sign of weakness or a failure of will was a sign that the game was over".

This echoed the grand old man of US economics, John Kenneth Galbraith who said: "All the great political leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This is the essence of leadership."

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This article was first published in The Brisbane Line, journal of the Brisbane institute, on 10 October 2002.

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About the Author

Ray Weekes is Chair of the Brisbane Institute. He was Chief Executive and Executive Director of Rothmans Holdings Limited and Managing Director of Castlemaine Perkins. Ray is CEO-in-Residence/Adjunct Professor at the Queensland University of Technology and Chairman of Performance Benchmarking International Limited.

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