What is courageous leadership?

3 minute read
Oxford MBA student council in front of London Eye

Globally, across politics and organisations, we are experiencing a crisis in leadership. We want our leaders to do better, but how? Leadership is a recurring theme of the Oxford Saïd MBA program and something as a coach I think about regularly. The Oxford Character Project, Global Leadership Summer School made me realise that despite many of us not being born natural leaders, we can all learn to become Courageous Leaders. Here’s how:

  1. Act from values and create a vision – People need to have clarity on who you are as a leader (values) and where you are heading (vision). Courageous Leaders build organisations rooted in values but also empower those around them by giving them a greater sense of purpose, a mission. People want a reason for doing that is bigger than themselves. A Leader who crafts a vision of possibility inspires loyalty, and commitment, and helps us understand why we do what we do.  
  2. Be authentic – To be a Courageous Leader authenticity is vital. Authenticity builds relationships, increases transparency, and creates a sense of trust. Courageous Leaders are willing to show their weaknesses, as well as their strengths and crucially, admit it when they are wrong or made a mistake. When our leaders dare to have the hard conversations (rising above their egos and/or insecurities), this creates psychological safety – the ability for us to show ourselves for who we are without fear of negative consequences.
  3. Listen at Level 3 – In coaching Level 3 is a deeper level of listening, it is listening to understand (not just to speak or to hear). It is the art of uncovering what is beneath the words of what is being said and not being said. In an increasingly action-oriented and results-driven world with constant deadlines and endless to-do lists, the simple skill of listening is too easily forgotten. Real listening can be learnt and is fundamental to the role of leadership. Courageous Leaders dedicate time to listening allowing others to feel seen, heard and understood.
  4. Be open to opinions – Courageous Leaders are unafraid of challenging their own opinions. They do so by consulting extensively, surrounding themselves with people who have different views, perspectives, and thoughts from their own. By welcoming diverse opinions and holding an open mind, true leaders rigorously question their own beliefs and consider alternatives not already thought of. The process of re-thinking and challenging one’s assumptions improves decision-making.
  5. Take responsibility for hard decisions – Decisions are by their very nature hard. Too often leaders lack the moral courage to make difficult decisions to effect system change. This leads to inaction followed by stagnation. Courageous Leaders are bold enough to commit to doing the right thing, even if this isn’t always the easy thing. They are willing to learn to take responsibility for the hard decisions and build trust by explaining how and why each decision was reached. 
  6. Prioritise peopleNot profits, not policy and not processes. Human connection is the most essential feature of engaged and motivated teams. People-focussed leaders understand how to empathise, support, and inspire others to have confidence in themselves. High levels of belonging, meaningful connections and collaboration must be proactively cultivated and cannot be left to chance. The development of these cultures is reflective of Courageous Leadership.

Leadership is fraught with difficulties; however, I believe that character and integrity are at the centre of what it means to be a leader. As we shape the person we want to be, we also form the leader we want to become. In the words of George Bernard Shaw – 'Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself'.