Why Leaders Need Strategic Courage More Than Heroics

by Jan 18, 2022Leadership

Leaders often praise and reward heroic actions, the “dive in the dirt” moves that save the day. Sometimes speed and boldness win the day, but heroics can lure us into using ad-hoc interventions as a default instead of doing the less glamorous work that makes heroics rare and mostly unnecessary. For example, the courage of firefighters is visible and sometimes necessary, but the work of the fire marshall, risk managers, safety engineers, and building managers is preventative. 

When leaders have strategic courage, they steer in the intended direction, ask for help when needed, admit error, relentlessly look for lessons, and change what needs to be modified in pursuit of the strategic intent. Such courage enables leaders to be alert for how often and in what situations dramatic actions are required because therein lay clues about how much an organization relies on a single person, luck, or ad-hoc measures. Sometimes, unusually great results are signs that something isn’t right. For example, the fraud that led to outsized results in retail banking at Wells Fargo or claims by Theranos that small amounts of blood were adequate to deliver multiple test results. 

As shocking as these examples may be, millions more minor instances lead to loss, but leaders fail to identify the cause correctly. Why? Because leaders are as vulnerable to being distracted by heroes like anyone else. The leader may even be trying to be the hero. 

Unfortunately, people close to a leader sometimes encourage and corroborate nearsightedness, perhaps out of fear. When this happens, broken systems remain covered up. What may begin as unwitting abdication becomes an organizational habit that people believe in and defend. As a result, practices aren’t usually examined unless leaders create an environment where honesty is more valuable than heroics. 

Leaders with strategic courage guide organizations to create cultures that openly challenge default thinking and workarounds and where extreme heroics are needed only in actual emergencies. Jim Detert’s excellent article “What Courageous Leaders Do Differently” in Harvard Business Review takes a close look at courageous leadership behavior, which is far more helpful than what he calls the typical but cartoonish “tough guy.” 

Three characteristics of leaders who show strategic courage:

1.    Breadth of knowledge and intellectual flexibility. Leaders who are good communicators tend to have a facility with metaphors and analogies. They can tell stories using content from their business and outside their company, history, literature, or a particular hobby. They use novel references as often as those more familiar. 

The ability to see parallels and translate an idea from one context to another is a product of both knowledge and mental agility. For example, Fran Lebowitz said, “Think before you speak. Read before you think. This will give you something to think about that you didn’t make up yourself — a wise move at any age, but most especially at seventeen, when you are in the greatest danger of coming to annoying conclusions.” Lebowitz’s comments address teenagers, but her advice is helpful to anyone, especially those prone to stepping into the trap of certainty, experienced leaders included. 

Wise leaders gather and think about ideas from many sources, including those some might judge unusual, as though it is a dangerous pursuit. Thinking is not harmful, but defaulting to certainty can be deadly. 

2.    Constant curiosity. On the heels of someone acting with great boldness and speed to achieve a laudable result, it is easy to miss the opportunity to learn. Yes, the hero did something extraordinary, but why was it necessary? Yes, results matter, but knowing how they were achieved matters as much. Business schools use examples of the good, the bad, and the truly terrible, for good reason – to learn. 

3.    Ability to let go. One of the most challenging aspects of strategy work is helping clients let go. Let go of what? 

  • Businesses that no longer fit their strategy
  • Ideas that don’t serve them 
  • Destructive people 
  • Habits masquerading as process 
  • Hero worship 

It is especially tough for leaders to let go of something they previously advocated for. This is a human cause of losses, large and small. Even if circumstances have changed, it can be hard to change course, never mind admit mistakes, but leaders who do so provide a model for others to do the same. 

Leaders who show strategic courage are neither reckless nor naive, nor are they the “do or die” type that will cling to what isn’t working. Instead, strategic courage allows leaders, at any level, to be open, experiment, learn, adapt, and move in the right direction. These behaviors, repeated over time, serve as a model for others and are far more effective than giving awards for rescue missions that didn’t need to happen.