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Leadership Courage in Action: How a Simple Decision Can Have Far-Ranging Effects

by Duncan Ferguson on

Great leadership requires courage of convictions, courage to voice a dissenting opinion and the courage  to ask an unpopular question.  And sometimes, leaders must have the courage to step into an uncomfortable situation.

It’s not always easy to summon the courage to take a stance that you know runs the risk of damaging your standing in your organization, but, as a leader, it comes with the job description. The headlines today are filled with examples of instances where integrity failed and leadership courage needs to come to the forefront.  Even if your workplace isn’t grappling with headline-grabbing issues, leadership courage is still necessary. And the impact of acting with courage can have ripple effects that expand farther than you might imagine.

To underscore the importance of leadership courage and the difference it can make, I always return to this story from my career journey that still resonates with me years later. It occurred when I was the HR Manager for a Regional Marketing and Sales district.

My first meeting with this group was their annual off-site sales meeting. At the pre-meeting dinner a sales manager named “Joe” was noticeably overserved. As the evening wore on, he became loud and belligerent. No one confronted him because apparently this drunken behavior had become accepted by the group as simply “Joe being Joe”.

Enter “Amanda,” the Sales Director for the group and Joe’s boss. She was reasonably new to her role, and this was also her first experience with Joe in a group setting. The next morning,  Amanda immediately sought me out to discuss Joe’s behavior, making it clear that she wanted to address the situation as soon as possible.  In short order we agreed to an approach, and, despite our nervousness, called a meeting with Joe. We offered him EAP assistance and, in no uncertain terms, made it clear to him that such behavior would no longer be tolerated.

Now, it might seem that Amanda’s course of action was pre-determined and didn’t require much leadership courage. However, Amanda’s two predecessors had witnessed the same issues with Joe but decided to avoid interceding because Joe was both well-respected professionally and delivered great results.  Since Amanda was new to her role, she was aware that confronting Joe could cause problems in building relationships with the rest of the team.  She easily could have avoided the matter by simply passing it along to her replacement as had happened previously.  But she didn’t. She addressed the situation directly because –  well, she knew that is what a leader does.

The results were amazing. Several months after Joe’s “episode,” he became sober, his team collaboration skills improved significantly and everyone in Joe’s life benefited, including – and perhaps most importantly – his family. A few months after the intervention, Joe’s wife connected with Amanda to thank her for making such a direct and positive impact on their family. Joe eventually retired from the company after a successful career. His wife thanked Amanda again at the retirement party for how she’d helped change their lives.

One small act of leadership courage not only improved an employee’s performance, it had huge ramifications on all the others, inside and outside the organization, who found themselves in Joe’s path of destruction. It would have been easy to do nothing. But being a great leader is anything but easy. The underlying premise to this story is that no matter the situation, being courageous is a mandate that leaders must accept.

How have you displayed leadership courage in your career? What courageous acts have had an impact on your life? Tell us in the comments below!

A slightly different version of this post appeared on Duncan’s LinkedIn profile.

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