I was standing inside the walls of The White House when the entire world economy nearly collapsed.
It was March 2008 at the tail end of George W. Bush’s presidency. I and a few of my colleagues were hosting fifty Champion Families representing Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. The President was scheduled to visit with the children and we could tell, despite his gracious disposition, he seemed distracted.
Little did we know, a mortgage meltdown was quickly approaching and it was going to be more entangled than we’d ever imagined.
the list went on.
And when the dust finally settled, 5 trillion dollars in pension money, real estate value, 401k savings and funds had vanished from the accounts of American taxpayers.
It wasn’t until the bailout that we realized how entangled the system had become — in fact, the banks knew what was happening all along. It was a series of incremental decision-making that led to the worst economic crisis we’d seen in decades.
Still, whether in the throes of Wall Street or the halls of the workplace, I’ve seen how a lack of integrity and courage can threaten any organization. And I’ve learned the demise of these downward spirals boils down to two things — incremental tolerance and leadership by omission.
Incremental tolerance is when leaders turn their heads and accept gray-area behavior from those around them. They often find themselves saying, ‘Just this time,’ ‘It’s not really against the rules,’ ‘It might be fuzzy, but it’s OK.’ This behavior doesn’t always stem from bad intentions, but can cause irreparable damage overtime.
Leadership by omission is when someone makes a conscience choice to remove themselves from a situation that requires strong advocacy. They may say, ‘This isn’t really a problem in our organization,’ ‘I don’t really need to be the one to advocate on this issue,’ ‘I’d rather not stir the pot even though I know it’s the right thing to do.’ They will then remove themselves from the situation by leaving a job/role or by simply doing nothing at all.
These two shortcomings serve as immediate red flags that we as leaders must be cognizant of to ensure organizational success. This is not just a C-Suite issue, it’s relevant at any level.
Taking a stand, however, isn’t always easy and requires a special mix of grit and courage that’s essential for making a meaningful and virtuous difference. Below are four ways to become a more courageous leader that will help you avoid incremental tolerance, leadership by omission and other organizational shortcomings.
1. Understand your ‘Bright Lines’. Like traveling on a highway, it’s important to stay in your lane of virtue – not crossing the bright yellow lines that influence your decision-making. Take a step back and look at the situation with intentionality – what will you stand for? What will you not tolerate? What are the things that really motivate and inspire you to lead well? What are your non-negotiables? Taking time to evaluate yourself and define your very core will position you for success as you navigate unexpected challenges. In Wall Street’s case, people turned their heads one small decision at a time resulting in incremental blurring of their bright lines. For me, respect has always been a core part of my values. I refuse to sit on the sidelines while someone acts disrespectfully to me or my team. I will ensure everyone on my team is treated with respect and dignity and they demonstrate the same toward others.
2. Ask the right questions. Asking the right questions is essential for spotting courageous opportunities.
These questions include:
– Have you avoided calling out behavior that’s unacceptable?
– Are there situations where you say, ‘I’ll just let this go by?’
– Is it unclear to you or your team where you stand on a particular topic?
– Would people on your team expect you to have a point of view on a situation?
– Would people on your team expect you to answer to a particular scenario?
TIP: If your answer is ‘no’ to the last two questions, you may have a blind spot in a certain area and may need to consider requesting trustworthy feedback from others.
3. Speak up. When you see something, say something. We tell this to our kids when it comes to school bullying yet why does it stop there? Often, we think we outgrow these principles thinking it’s not our responsibility to take a stand for what’s right or that we’ll kill our career for doing so. However, a willingness to stand up, demonstrate bravery and withstand the tests of tension that come with courageous leadership will give you a true sense of purpose as you navigate your leadership journey.
TIP: Having courage as a leader doesn’t mean acting disrespectfully or recklessly. Be self-aware and identify the best approach to take on an issue without any ill behavior.
4. Model the way. Use this opportunity to demonstrate what it looks like to implement courage. Now more than ever, we need courageous leaders in our businesses and our country. Whether you’re a CEO facing the front lines of leadership or an intern just getting their feet wet, your actions have a ripple effect on those around you. And when you shift your mentality, you will realize where you are is not about you, but about helping others rise to success.
Courageous leadership can be lonely and gut-wrenching. After all, having the courage to do what is right even if it’s going to have a negative consequence on you is easier said than done. But when you exercise the discipline of courage, you will truly know what you are made of as a leader and others will experience the joy that comes from your bravery. I hope you’ll do just that in your leadership today!