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Leadership Article 7: Courage in Leadership

26 October 2010

Most of life involves compromise. - by John Bittleston of Terrific Mentors

If it did not we would perpetually be at war. We compromise our standards, our beliefs, our backgrounds. As with everything else, too much compromise is bad, too little is stupid. Because every rule has sometimes to be broken we occasionally have to ‘compromise with compromise’ – in other words, stand firm and not compromise at all. Knowing when to do this, understanding which issues are worth fighting for and being shrewd enough to distinguish the important from the trivial are the keys to successful, but not overbearing, standards.

Compromise takes courage. That may surprise some readers because it is often thought that compromise is the weak way out, the coward’s retreat. For people of strong character and high standards it is the opposite. Price-chopping compromise is certainly weak. Indeed, negotiations of the sort we conduct a lot of the time are themselves merely vacillation and an exhibition of uncertainty - a poor way to establish justice. Adversarial behaviour generally is so out of tune with our new thinking ability and yet it is almost universal even in 2010. Compromise would work better for us.

Ronald Reagan said that you can achieve anything in this world provided you are prepared to forgo the credit for it. That is a form of courageous compromise between the desire or need to receive acclamation and the achievement of your goal. A leader who gives credit to his workers will be rewarded by a 110% effort. “I have needs,” someone said to me not long ago. Very true, we all do. It takes a brave person to compromise those needs to satisfy the needs of others as well as their own.

The classic definition of courage is ‘grace under pressure’. We see it all the time in people facing terminal illnesses, watching dementia develop in their relatives or themselves or when we lose our own plot and feel that we can no longer cope. Courage is mostly not the thing of which medals are made; it is more a quiet perseverance. A poem I once wrote for a friend whose young wife had died painfully contained the following phrase “courage and love bear much of any load”. He still reads the poem from time to time, reminding himself what courage his wife had - and also what courage he has.

Applying courage in management is tricky. Many fail to do so out of fear of looking foolish if the thing that they were being courageous about goes pear-shaped. The toughest courage we are called on to demonstrate is steadfastness in the face of defeat. If loss of face is important to you, courage when you risk doing so can be inspirational for others. Many have come back from apparent disaster to successfully rebuild their lives and triumph.

Courageous leaders don’t get ‘derailed’ when things go wrong; they keep cool in a panic. Brave men think clearly in a crisis; they do not waffle, they cut to the chase and define the problem or opportunity fast so that damage can be contained or advantage taken. Strong leaders stand up for what is right when it matters; they are not forever fighting, preferring to lose occasional battles but win the war. The best leaders put their jobs on the line when it is necessary. Sometimes this gets them fired but usually it results in promotion.

Courage is not about heroics; it is about steadfastness in troubled times. It really is ‘grace under pressure’.

Terrific Mentors John Bittleston, Eliza Quek, Denise Pang help people with their careers, businesses and personal lives at

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