The Importance of Courage and Empathy in Leadership

Aristotle called courage the first virtue because it makes all of the other virtues possible. It’s so true because without courage it’s almost impossible to break through into any new territory.

Leadership will be weak without this virtue, and all who follow will feel a lack of strength coming from the top, leaving people feeling insecure and uncertain, not knowing for sure if their leader is strong enough to carry them through the tough times.

What  Is Courage?

The Merriam – Webster Dictionary gives a simple and full definition of courage.

The simple definition: “the ability to do something that you know is difficult or dangerous.”

The full definition: “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear or difficulty.”

So, what is courage really? What’s behind it? Why do we even need it?

Real courage is driven by a deep conviction to do what’s right, it’s a determination to do what’s right over what’s popular.

Great leaders never insult, belittle, or undermine a person, rather they support, encourage, and teach their team.

Courageous leaders give constructive feedback, rather than harsh criticism. They know when to stay silent, and can also take criticism themselves

What Is Courage In Leadership?

Courage in leadership starts with the leader. If you are a leader, it has to start with you. Do you know what you stand for? What are your values and beliefs? What’s important to you?

Is it honesty, respect, integrity, efficiency, loyalty, morality, communication, etc?

Self-examination is a very important part of leadership. It means doing a personal inventory on yourself, i.e. taking stock of your character and conduct regularly to see where you are deficient.

You can do this with a coach or trusted colleague, but not a close friend or family member, as they may be biased and not want to challenge you. A coach or colleague can be more objective, making the process a little less painful for you.

How To Carry Out A Personal Inventory 

I have broken this down into 3 categories; your personal life, public life, and spiritual life:

Your Personal Life:

Are there areas in your personal life that are less than honourable, such as dishonesty or a lack of integrity?

Take a pen and paper and simply think about your relationships and how you treat others each day? What words do you use? Do you give compliments, encourage, and edify, or do you criticize, belittle, or undermine the people close to you?

Often people think they can separate their personal life from their professional life, but the truth is, whatever attitudes or behaviours are carried out in private will eventually present themselves in the public arena too.

Do not underestimate the importance of your reputation. If that is destroyed in one place, it could carry on into all future positions. But, this should not be your motivation for living a good, honest life.

Learn to want to have an impeccable character. You will reap the rewards when you see how your character goes before you.

It is more of a compliment to be trusted than it is to be loved

Your Public Life:

As a leader you have a higher responsibility to live well and make good choices. People have put their trust in you to act on their behalf.

You are their role model, all eyes are on you, and people will always do what you do more than what you say.

Lead by example. This means treating all people with equality and respect. You need to be a man or woman of courage who goes ahead of the rest checking out what opportunities or dangers lie ahead. You are in a position of trust and responsibility, so you need to be fearless.

Write down 10 qualities you possess in your work life, and for personal growth purposes, write down your weakness too so you can work on them.

An inventory isn’t easy to do, but it’s so important, so don’t beat yourself up, be gentle with yourself. If you see areas that you feel bad about, forgive yourself and move forward. You can make amends if it’s necessary or just choose a different way next time.

Spiritual Life:

This can be your value system or your belief system. Whether you believe in God or not, you are a slave/servant to something or someone. You may choose to serve your God, and this will direct the course of your life.

Your value system will be based on these beliefs which will in turn trickle into your work life.

If God directs your personal and spiritual life, then God will also direct your leadership decisions.

You cannot be divided from your deepest core values and beliefs. They steer your ship, so to speak.

Your beliefs will be the driving force in your life, so it’s important to ask yourself what you believe, and are you living it out in reality?

It takes work to maintain your integrity. The key to integrity is to do what you say you will do and be consistent. Your word has weight, people can count on you.

10 Character Traits of a Courageous Leader:

1. They take their responsibilities seriously

2. They are trustworthy

3. They are effective communicators

4. They are risk takers

5. They are not afraid to confront bad behaviour

6.  They are pro-active

7.  They are not afraid to say No

8. They persevere

9. They are not afraid to be distinct, different from the crowd

10. They can handle criticism, but rarely criticize others

Empathy – Do Leaders Need It?

“Empathy is the ability to experience and relate to the thoughts, emotions, or experiences of others. Empathy is more than simple sympathy, it’s being able to understand and support others with compassion or sensitivity.” (Gentry, Weber & Sadri)

Empathy is a very important part of leadership. We are no longer in an age where the boss gives the orders, and everyone says ‘ yes sir, no sir,‘ without question.

Much more is expected and needed from a leader today. We need leaders who care, who genuinely take an interest in their staff.

According to a study carried out by Gentry & Chappelow in 2009, ineffective managers make up half of today’s organizational management pool. In the study, subordinates rated managers on 4 items:

  1. Is sensitive to signs of overwork in others
  2. Shows interest in the needs, hopes and dreams of other people
  3. Is willing to help an employee with personal problems
  4. Conveys compassion toward them when they disclose a personal loss

Their overall findings revealed that empathy is positively related to job performance and that empathy and performance have a connection in most cultures.

Leadership today has shifted and is now more about building and maintaining relationships

To improve performance and effectiveness, leaders may need to develop the capability to demonstrate empathy. Leadership today has shifted and is now more about building and maintaining relationships.

So, what can we do? Can empathy be learned?

Shapiro, 2002 says empathy can be learned. “If given enough time and support, leaders can develop and enhance their empathy skills through coaching, training or developmental opportunities and initiatives.”

Firstly, let us look at what Empathy is not.. It is not sympathy or pity. Bob T. Moran 2012 states that there are key distinctions:

Pity – Sadly Grieving Experience

Sympathy – Emotionally Sharing Experience

Empathy – Respectfully Understanding Experience – understanding feelings, situations, needs & aspirations

Empathy is a key component in Emotional Intelligence. Without good empathetic skills, it is impossible to be able to see the other person’s point of view.

To truly empathize, you need to put yourself in another persons shoes, and then try to walk a mile or two in them.

Transformational leaders need empathy in order to show their teams that they care about them.

The Benefits of Empathetic Leadership:
  • The client feels validated and understood
  • The client feels valued
  • The client feels heard
  • The client feels safe to share fears
  • The client feels part of the team
  • Performance improves
  • Relationships are stronger
  • Trust increases
  • A sense of satisfaction

Empathetic listening is a key part of coaching as it builds rapport with clients. It develops trust and hence a safe environment to explore what’s going on for them.

“When a coach empathetically listens to another person’s ideas, thoughts, and concerns, the coach communicates that the other person’s life is important and meaningful. This may be the most important service that a coach can provide.” (Bob T. Moran, 2012)

The coach can help the client move forward once this level of understanding and trust has been developed. The client feels ready to explore what’s truly important for them.

As coaches, we offer a service where people experience empathy, and through this experience may develop the skills themselves. Alternatively, leaders and managers can get formal training in developing more empathy.

Leadership has certainly changed over the years. Today people are looking for leaders who genuinely care about them. They want to work in a nice environment where they feel heard and understood.

For leaders, this requires a lot of introspection and the development of soft skills. Qualities such as courage and empathy are essential in leadership today, along with other virtues, such as kindness, compassion, encouragement, and many others.

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