Last week, I blogged about how tough leadership is not about being loud and boisterous and abrasive and rude and demeaning.

This week, I want to share some thoughts about one thing that is an important ingredient in tough leadership:  courage.

In leadership, being tough is not about the way you treat your subordinates.  It is about the way you react to challenges.

Tough leaders do not sweep challenges under the proverbial rug.  They don’t ignore imperfections and risks.

They confront those challenges, imperfections and risks no matter how uncomfortable it makes them.  Refusing to run and hide from uncomfortable situations is the behavior of a truly tough leader.  Truly tough leaders have courage.

I was pondering the concept of courage in general – and leadership courage in particular – yesterday in a somewhat unusual situation.  I was in line to ride the Phantom’s Revenge roller coaster in Kennywood Park.

The Phantom’s Revenge features a 232-foot drop.  And reaches 85 miles per hour. ranks it as one of the 10 scariest roller coasters in the world, saying that its largest drop “is so crazy that it causes riders to at least, momentarily, believe they might become decapitated.”

Now, I consider myself courageous in business.  But, when it comes to roller coasters, I have historically been quite a sissy.  So, riding the Phantom’s Revenge would be a major stretch for me.

But, now was the time to change.  If I am going to inspire a world of leaders to be courageous, I need to be courageous in every way I can.

So, I rode this intimidating ride.  And I proudly – proudly – survived.

I didn’t chicken out at the last minute and get out of line.  I didn’t cry.  I didn’t barf.

But I did come up with some courage-building tips that could be applied to leadership!

Here they are:

  • Find something that you’re scared of and do it!  In leadership, there are plenty of activities that scare us:  Confronting a problematic employee, investigating a IT security risk that could prompt a shutdown if it is confirmed and while it is fixed, reorganizing a department for future productivity even though it will cause chaos at first, etc.  Inside, part of us hopes that the current situation could stay the same and nothing bad would happen and/or that we could experience growth despite of the issues.  But, in our hearts, we know that to truly reach out potential, we must take action in uncomfortable situations.  It comes down to two options:  if you don’t take action, you’re weak and, if you do, you’re strong.  So, I rode the Phantom’s Revenge despite my fear.  And I feel that I experienced growth.  I moved the bar and feel that I can handle bigger and faster challenges now.  The same is true in leadership.  The more fears you face, the less fears you will have and you will get exponentially closer to reaching your potential.
  • Use affirmations.  If you’re a coaster scaredy cat like me, you know that waiting in line for a big coaster is torture.  Each minute feels like a lifetime.  You have so much time to think about your fear.  The moments when you, as a leader, prepare to confront a scary business situation are similar.  You can make yourself physically sick.  You need to battle these mental demons and affirmations can be a powerful weapon in that fight.  Both in my head and out loud to my wife, I kept saying “I can handle this.  I’m courageous.”  And, after a while, I started believing myself.  It was almost like saying those affirmations was making a promise with myself that I would be embarrassed to break.  So, as you encounter those fearful moments when you are preparing to confront a scary business situation, tell yourself “I got this.  I’m courageous.” or something similar.  Psyche yourself up because, without affirmations, you may psyche yourself out.
  • Think about the courage of others.  Put your uncomfortable business situation into perspective by looking outside of business.  Surely, you know someone who faced a difficult challenge.  Someone who succeeded in a competitive sport or had to overcome bullying or battled cancer.  Consider how their situation was so much tougher than yours.  Think of how courageous they had to be.  Waiting in line for the Phantom’s Revenge, I thought of a family member who had extreme social anxiety due to being on the autism spectrum.  This person avoided social situations as much as possible.  Yet, one day, he wanted to join a sports team.  Joining a sports team can be anxiety inducing, even for a neurotypical person.  There are new people to be among and many of them already have a seemingly impenetrable circle of friends.  Coaches are often the gruff, alpha males I described in the above linked blog post.  It can be uncomfortable for anyone and 10 times as uncomfortable for someone on the autism spectrum.  Yet, this person had the courage to join and battle the anxiety, becoming successful.  I thought “If he can do that, I can do this.”  Apply this technique when you have anxiety over doing the right – but difficult – things a leader needs to do.  You may even say, “If Charles can ride the Phantom’s Revenge, I can do this!”
  • Realize that most difficult situations don’t last forever.  As I prepared myself to ride the Phantom’s Revenge, I thought about the “finish line.”  Once I confronted the situation, the uncomfortable moments wouldn’t last forever.  Sure, those moments climbing the hills and flying down the dips would be tough, but they wouldn’t last forever.  The same is true with most situations you’ll face as a business leader.  So, you have to confront that problematic employee.  How long will that conversation last?  5 minutes?  10 minutes?  A half an hour?  Regardless, you know that the conversation will be over.  If you have this conversation in the morning, think that by the time you sink your teeth into your sandwich at lunch time, that conversation will be long over.  Think about what you can or will move onto after the challenge is addressed, whether that be a 5-minute conversation or a year-long project.  There is an ending point.  Reassuring yourself that the discomfort won’t last forever can help you feel more confident in getting things started.

Fear keeps people in leadership positions from becoming truly tough leaders.  But courage can defeat fear.  If you want to reach your leadership potential, dig deep and find your courage. When you find it one time, you’ll realize that being courageous is not something you either are or aren’t – it is simply  a decision you make.

All of us have the ability to be courageous.  Isn’t that an empowering thought?

Charles Dominick, SPSM, SPSM2, SPSM3

Charles Dominick, SPSM, SPSM2, SPSM3 is an internationally-recognized business expert, legendary procurement thought leader, award-winning entrepreneur, and provocative blogger. Charles founded the Next Level Purchasing Association in 2000, oversaw its incredible growth, and successfully led the organization to its acquisition by the Certitrek Group in 2016. He continues to blog and provide advisory services for the NLPA on a part-time basis as he incubates his upcoming business innovations. Charles is also the co-author of the wildly popular, groundbreaking book, "The Procurement Game Plan: Winning Strategies & Techniques For Supply Management Professionals."

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