What’s the difference between a great leader and an average one?
I’ve had the opportunity to observe dozens of leaders in my career. Some were exceptional, most barely passed for average. I’ve spent many hours tossing and turning on the idea of what makes for an exceptional leader, what makes them great. I’ve read books, had discussions with colleagues, watched videos and talked with people who are far smarter and experienced than myself.
After all of this wonderful introspection and discovery one characteristic continues to pop up which defines great leadership over average leadership. It’s a mindset, a willingness to do what others often won’t.
What makes great leaders is their ability and willingness to use ‘managerial courage’.
Managerial courage is the linchpin, the cornerstone, the apex for all things related to leading successfully. The word courage is of itself is an incredibly powerful word. The late John McCain had described courage as “that rare moment of unity between conscience, fear, and action, when something deep within us strikes the flint of love, of honor, of duty, to make the spark that fires our resolve.”
Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic and best selling author is quoted as saying “Courage is the quality that distinguishes great leaders from excellent managers.”
George also said, “courageous leaders take risks that go against the grain of their organizations. They make decisions with the potential for revolutionary change in their markets. Their boldness inspires their teams, energizes customers, and positions their companies as leaders in societal change.”
If we apply George’s and McCain’s definitions of courage we can surmise that ‘managerial courage’ is the willingness to make decisions which we believe to be in the best interest or our employees or company, regardless of the popularity or risks involved.
A deeper look into managerial courage and we find that it can be further described as a set of actions and beliefs a leader possesses which define who they are and how they go about leading and inspiring others. These actions and beliefs include:
There’s no other word I can think of other than ‘courage’ to appropriately define good leadership. Primarily because it is so easy to not do the things listed above, especially when times are tough, yet to do them consistently it takes great discipline and resolve. It also means we will inevitably make decisions which don’t favor ourselves yet position our employees or company for better opportunities.
Here’s what managerial courage looks like in real life.
Scenario: A CEO of ABC company is pressing his VP of Sales to reach revenue targets by year end in order for the company to hit its financial goals. The VP of Sales has one sales rep in particular who singlehandedly drives 30% of the company’s revenue, consistently coming in as the #1 producer in the company, year after year. The company relies on this sales rep heavily to produce and as such the company has benefited handsomely. Unfortunately this same sales rep also causes a lot of problems within the company. He’s had several complaints against him by other employees, has a bad attitude, disregards company policy, has even been caught using his company expense account for personal purchases. If that wasn’t enough our lovely sales rep has also caused two other employees within the company to quit. Even though this sales rep is a cancer to his company, the company overlooks his problems because he’s a top performer. They’ve swept the issues under the rug hoping things will miraculously improve by themselves. Let’s face it, he makes the company a lot of money, how can they walk away from that.
Does this scenario sound similar to you?
Managerial courage in the above scenario would look like this. The VP of Sales provides a variety of opportunities for the sales rep to improve while demonstrating the employee is acting in accordance with company standards and the VP’s expectations. In the event these opportunities to improve and or employment warnings are not adhered to the VP of Sales must make a tough and unpopular decision to fire the sales rep. It’s a tough decision indeed because the VP of Sales knows she very well may lose her own job because she just went against the CEO and fired an employee that represents 30% of the company’s annual revenue intake.
In this scenario, our VP of Sales chose an unpopular decision because it’s what was truly best for the company and its employees, despite what her boss the CEO had advised. The VP of Sales fired an employee who is a cancer to those around him. Ultimately it doesn’t matter how good the sales rep is at their job, if they are causing issues and aren’t able to adjust accordingly after receiving feedback they don’t belong there in the first place.
This is managerial courage. The willingness to make a decision to do what’s right even when the outcome may be unpopular or damaging.
It takes great tenacity, strength, fortitude, mental determination and care to be a leader and do so successfully. Sure, anyone can be a leader, but those who do it successfully stand head and shoulders above their counterparts when they utilize managerial courage. The characteristic of courage is the very essence of what leadership is all about.
Key Take Away:
Standing up for what’s right and having the willingness to make tough decisions is key to being a great leader, even if the outcome may be viewed as unpopular.
Read the book ‘True North’ by Bill George. It’s an incredibly well written book that teaches people who to be themselves while acting and making decisions which are in accordance with your beliefs.
About the Author
Travis Smith is the founder and managing director of Square-1 Engineering, a life sciences consulting firm, providing end to end technical project services to companies which design, develop and or manufacture products in Southern California. He successfully served the life sciences marketplace in SoCal for over 15 years specializing in engineering services, consulting, project outsourcing and leadership development. In 2019 he was recognized as a ‘40 Under 40’ honoree by the Greater Irvine Chamber of Commerce as a top leader in Orange County, CA.