Just yesterday someone was telling me that one of the important leadership traits or characteristics for CEOs in the global development sector is courage. That comment got me thinking about courage: what is it and why is it important?
When I think of courage, in combination with NGOs and leaders, what immediately jumps to mind are those admirable trail blazers that go into scary places with Ebola or armed conflicts or devastation after an earthquake and stand with staff and program partners. Then there are the leaders who take heat for making the tough decisions in the best interest of the organization and its mission and vision. Each of these expressions of courage are to be celebrated, and many are unique to our sector. You don’t see many CEOs from the auto or fashion industries, for instance, sleeping in a tent in Haiti after an earthquake, but I know many leaders in the global development sector who did just that.
There is, however, another element of courage that is, in my view, just as important and that gets less of a starring role than doing a site visit in Afghanistan. It contributes to organizational health, resilience, and effectiveness. This element is more personal, can stick in our craws, and yet has the power to change our own leadership effectiveness and change the culture of our organizations. It is - wait for it - identifying our own behaviors that are not working and then changing them.
You may be feeling somewhat let down. You were hoping there would be a momentous revelation. I wish I had other news for you. Owning up to the fact that some of your behavior is not up to snuff and then changing it is not as thrilling as visiting projects in insecure areas, and there are no photo ops for the website. But the return on investment of your time and efforts will be far more rewarding, trust me on this.
So what are we really talking about here? We are talking about the courage to ask for input from colleagues, peers, direct reports (board members? family members?) about what you are doing that is not having the impact that you intend, and asking for ideas about what to do differently. And then having the discipline to do the new behaviors and keep checking in on how you are faring.
The truth is that every single individual is doing stuff that is an obstacle to success - his or her success and that of the organization, team, direct reports, board. We are aware of many of those traits or behaviors, and then there are some we think we have done a great job of hiding (but we actually haven’t). There are also those that we are unaware of, but that others see.
I have done hundreds of interviews in organizations about the strengths and areas of growth for leaders. What I know without a shred of doubt is that even the most adored and admired Presidents, CEOs, Executive Directors, and SVPs have a handful of leadership traits that are not working for the organization and that are getting in the way of peak performance, crackerjack teams, and happy, effective staff. Some even have two or three handfuls that are not working and those are the organizations that are groaning to succeed.
Research tells us that there is a direct correlation between effective leaders and asking for feedback. In my own experience, when coaching clients are rated by others on how much 2 they have improved in effectiveness and also how often they asked for feedback, those individuals that are rated highest on frequently asking for feedback are also rated higher on improving effectiveness. Those rated low on frequency of asking for feedback are also rated lower on improving effectiveness.
It is that simple, people. And it takes courage to do. Courage to be vulnerable. To ask for and listen, say thank you and then go to work on changing. That takes a big dollop of courage that is akin to visiting projects in Sudan. It takes digging deep when it seems that your plate is full and there are more pressing and urgent things to be addressed.
Here is the good news though: it doesn’t take more than 3 minutes to ask someone for input. We are not talking about making an appointment, sitting down, putting on your serious face. It can be as simple as leaving a meeting and saying to your COO something like this: “At that meeting I was working on listening and asking questions. What ideas do have about how I could do that better in my next meeting?” Your COO replies that you could try asking a curious question before every statement you make. Voila! Conversation ends and you go your separate ways. Or she says that she needs to think about it, and you follow up with her later to get her ideas. Either way it is fast and quick. No pain.
From now on, when we think about courage, let’s add in personal courage. Courage to be vulnerable, to learn and grow, to model for others the behaviors and habits that we are hoping to see from them. 1 For more on this see Jahari Window https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johari_window 2 Top Ranked Leaders Know This Secret: Ask For Feedback Joseph Folkman June 8, 2105 Forbes