The Howells Group Blog

Finding Courage to Lead and Live Well

Leading well requires many things from flawed human beings. On the long and daunting list of needed skills and characteristics, I’m convinced that courage is near the top. Courage to be yourself. Courage to speak your truth. The courage to act correctly, especially when you know it may not make others happy. Courage to confront mediocre, bad behavior; including your own. These are actions that do NOT come “naturally” but develop through the crucible of conflict, frustration, hardship and often from staring with fierce honesty at your own flaws and bungled attempts.

A recent event with a senior leader we’ve been coaching and consulting with demonstrates this point. The “wind up” to this meeting was a series of interviews to assess how well the new President was building a cohesive management group and alignment with the company vision. Interviews revealed a strong agreement that changes in his leadership style were needed for things to move forward.

My goal in this meeting with the President was to present the interview results in a constructive and diplomatic manner. My “mental rehearsal” for the meeting didn’t prepare me for what we experienced in real time. We were kept waiting 45 minutes, our client was distracted at his computer, back turned to us as we finally were invited to enter the office. The next 5 -10 minutes we were interrupted by him shuffling, printing and punctuated by his ‘ups and downs” from the conference table. As I finally began to deliver the interview feedback, I realized he was demonstrating the very behavior that the team had given us feedback about!

It was that proverbial moment of truth. Would I say what I saw? Would I practice “straight talk” as we had been coaching the President and his team to do – or wimp out? I could feel the words stick in my throat – and my brain grasp for the best way to share what I saw happening. Finally, I launched in. I tried to be direct without being accusatory. It wasn’t easy for either of us and the conversation was difficult and messy. He was immediately rationalized his actions and wouldn’t stop defending himself. I persisted in making my point; and persisted some more determined that he WOULD listen to the feedback. (Moving over the line from persistent over the line to “stubborn” is a fine line but even when I was over the line I kept going!). Finally, my colleague interjected and we transitioned to the “heart” of the issue – the recommendations for positive change. It was tense for the rest of the meeting and I jumped to the conclusion that I’d probably just removed myself from this account. A week later I learned that the company founder, who had been in the room watching it all, saw the whole interaction as a “win” and termed it “brilliant” instead of grounds for termination. I was surprised.. and honestly relieved. I had shown courage in speaking truth, even if my delivery lacked my desired diplomacy and could have resulted in negative results for me.

Several weeks later, the President shared what had happened in his mind during that conversation during an offsite planning meeting. With me at the front of the room, he acknowledged that he could have dismissed me and the feedback, fired me (!) or listened. He did the latter. He considered the feedback and shared with the group that he was working to change. His transparency showed courage. The offsite was proclaimed a “breakthrough” for the team. And it was for me and for our client, the President. His openness about this incident gave permission for a new level of honest conversation for his team. People talked in new ways. Misunderstandings were clarified. Problems were addressed. The background was cleared. A leaders’ courage paves the way for others. Courage is NOT a lack of fear – but to act even when the twinge of anxiety tempts you to cave as the risk may be too great. I re-learned, once again, that speaking with courage with the intent to cause growth ( even when we’re clumsy) can be worth the risk for all involved.

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