Bravery: an Overlooked Leadership Quality?

As I watched the coverage of the 40 year anniversary of the Apollo lunar landing last week, one thought kept entering my mind: these men were so brave! Can you imagine going into space in a lightweight craft traveling at 25,000 miles per hour? Can you imagine landing on the moon with literally only 20 seconds of fuel left before touch down? They were truly going ‘where no man had gone before.’ I can’t help but imagine there was some trepidation or perhaps even outright fear somewhere in that spacecraft. Yet, they powered through and this quality of unbridled bravery set our country, and our world, on a course which altered history.

(Here are a few items on Apollo 11 which are incredible: Apollo 11 video | The crew)

Like many of the great achievements of the past, we don’t and probably can’t fully grasp the effort it took to get there. Overcoming obstacles, unprecedented creativity, unwavering solidarity, making the tough decisions – all these contributed to making landing on the moon a reality.

All these qualities represent leadership of the finest level. Yet, the one visceral quality which is often overlooked in leadership is bravery. Just having the raw kahunas to embark on such a mission represents the most courageous of leaders.

Being successful in business today also takes bravery.

  • how to make tough calls in difficult times,
  • how to have the fortitude to stand tall in the face of adversity,
  • how to plow through deadlines and ‘keep your wits’ when the stress and pressures seem overwhelming.

Here are a few lessons we can learn from bravery:

Assume the position.

Corra Harris, the renowned Southern author from the late 1890’s, stated: “The bravest thing you can do when you are not brave is to profess courage and act accordingly.” How true this is. When we proclaim our fearlessness, it is amazing to watch how we become fearless.

Recently, I was working with an executive who needed to give a very public report on the company’s quarterly results. The statistics were not great – partly due to the recession’s impact on his business, and partly due to simple ‘lack of execution’ against defined objectives. Net: the material he needed to present was not going to be positive, and the audience, made up of analysts and shareholders, was not going to cut him any slack. Frankly, he was scared.

Logic tells us that there wasn’t much he could do at this juncture. He needed to stand up, tell the truth, and lay out his next course of action. Nevertheless, he needed to get past his fear. So, every morning as he was shaving he recited a mantra to himself: “I am strong. I can do this. We will be successful going forward. I am not afraid.” He would say this to himself over and over again. Before long, he began to embody those very words. Giving his quarterly analyst report was tough; yet, he embodied strength, confidence, and courage when he stood before a very demanding audience. He assumed the position.

Never give up.

History is rich with testimonies of perseverance and stalwart resolve. I want to offer just one. This is a quote from Winston Churchill, as Great Britain and the United States faced the horrors of world war in 1941:

“Here is the answer which I will give to President Roosevelt… We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools and we will finish the job.” And again, Churchill echoed not a few months later: “Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small…”. We know how this story ends – and I believe the end result was absolutely due to the bravery of many men and women; and particularly the courage of our leaders – Roosevelt, Churchill, Eisenhower, Patton, MacArthur and Montgomery – to name a few.

In our daily lives while leading corporate America, teaching school, raising teenagers, and raising money for charities, we, too, are faced with the temptation to ‘give up’ when it gets tough. What I know for sure is if we, as leaders, give up – then the game is over. As leaders, it is our responsibility to be courageous and persevere in the face of often scary and ominous circumstances. Others are looking to us for our resolve, our direction, and, yes, our courage to make the hard decisions, set the firm direction, and never give up.

Study – know your stuff.

There is no alternative to being prepared and well versed in your field. Period. Haven’t you noticed how confident you feel when you are prepared? This confidence translates to ‘courage under fire.’

When the crew of the Apollo 11 was asked at a news conference what the most dangerous part of the mission would be, Mike Collins answered: “The part which we have overlooked in our preparations.” There you have it. When we study, prepare, and practice – we gain confidence and bravery. There is simply no replacement for preparation.

Join hands with your team.

I have a tender place in my heart for Mike Collins. He was the command module pilot on Apollo 11 who steered the spacecraft; yet, did not get the reward or thrill of actually walking on the moon.

When he was asked: “Circling the moon by yourself … weren’t you lonely?”

He said: “No. Far from feeling lonely or abandoned, I feel very much a part of what is taking place on the lunar surface. I know that I would be a liar or a fool if I said that I have the best of the three Apollo 11 seats, but I can say with truth and equanimity that I am perfectly satisfied with the one I have. This venture has been structured for three men, and I consider my third to be as necessary as either of the other two.” He got it. He was part of the team. Sure, he would have loved to have the excitement of walking on the moon; yet, he joined hands with his two colleagues to achieve a joint objective.

As leaders, sure, it can be lonely at the top. Yet, as Mike Collins points out, leaders are also part of a team. We are not alone – unless we choose to be. Joining hands with our colleagues, partners, peers, and employees builds strength, fosters confidence, and bravery throughout the ranks.

To sum it up

No one has the corner on the market on fear. Everyone is afraid – at one time or another. It is part of the human condition. Typically what holds us back is fear of something … rejection, making a wrong decision, failure, missed opportunities, possible hurt, missed projections, loss, the list is long. If we can embrace the fear and use it as a catalyst, we can achieve many goals which we thought were beyond our wildest dreams. Bravery can be our foundational backbone.

As Eleanor Roosevelt so famously stated, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” Amen.