Courageous Leadership In An Era Of Questionable Leaders.

"I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear."

- Nelson Mandela

Donald Trump and his trumpery have been shaking the world of politics in the Republican nomination race. His pronouncements have been outrageous on one hand and downright scary for those who are watching around the world. Calling for banning of Muslims from entering the US, threatening to build a wall on the Mexican border and bombing families of terrorist. The support he has been receiving from his stadia-filling crowds is also making people around the world question whether Americans are still the model of democracy and freedom.

Further south in Brazil, political leadership under President Dilma Rousseff is being shaken by a crippling corruption scandal that involves members in highest offices including the former President. In South Africa, President Zuma's links to the questionable Gupta family is not only affecting the political order but now meddling with the economy as well. I can speak about Russia, Syria, North Korea but I think you get the point of where I am going with this.

Leadership Counts

Leadership counts! Leadership is important and it affects everything in teams, organisations and countries. As John C. Maxwell puts it "Everything rises and falls on leadership." Simply put, leadership determines the future of an organisation, a country and even just a small department of the 3rd floor of a massive company. Great leadership can turn a struggling department into superstars or turn a whole company around. Countries' fortunes have been determined by the level to which their leaders have been able to step up to greatness or not.

What is lacking today is Courageous Leadership.

What Does It Even Look Like?

With the kind of examples cited above, many are starting to question whether courageous leadership still exists. You might even be forgiven for not being sure what courageous leadership looks like.

I want you to picture this real life scenario that took place in 1994 after Nelson Mandela had been elected the first President of a democratic South Africa. The day he took office in the all white Office of the State President in Pretoria, there were widespread fears from the staff. The staff was worried about what would happen to them and their jobs now that a 'Black President' had taken over. Mandela called all the staff into the cabinet room. He said that the ANC had won the election and would run the country together with the government of National Unity. Then he said to the staff present, anyone who felt they could not work together with him and the new government, would be allowed to leave and would receive their pension. But those who were willing to work with him and the ANC would not lose their jobs. He said that the new government needed their experience and knowledge and asked them to train and work alongside their new colleagues.

He didn't stop there, though, he went on to meet and ask every staff member what their name was, where they were from and how many children they had. It took a long time but by the time he was finished he had the most motivated staff. In one single act of acknowledgement and connection, he converted some who previously believed he was a dangerous communist into seeing him as the best leader they had served yet. One lady who had worked there for over 20 years said that it was the first time any president ever came to her office! (Source: One Step Behind Mandela - Rory Steyn)

This one story from the leadership of Nelson Mandela illustrates part of what I mean about courageous leadership. Courageous leadership is not about sounding brave, or being the most abrasive and loud voice in the room as we have seen lately. Courageous Leadership is less about empty words and rhetoric and more about principle and character.

Here are a few aspects of courageous leadership you as a leader may want to remember as you steer your team, department or organisation into the future:

1.The Courage To Stand On Principle Not Popularity

As leaders, the temptation to be popular is very alluring. Popularity is good for a leader as it draws people in and creates an admiration that can be used successfully to influence. Show me a completely unpopular leader and I will show you a non-influential one. It is important for people to look up to their leaders and see in them what they aspire to. But popularity alone is not enough.

Courageous leaders stand for and are uncompromising in their principles. For Nelson Mandela, his core principle was "Equal rights for all, regardless of race, class or gender." This one principle was the guiding basis for all of his decisions. That is why when some members of his own party wanted to marginalise whites in the New South Africa, because of "what they had done to blacks", he flatly refused to go along, saying "if we do this than we are no better than the apartheid government we fought so hard against."

The temptation is always there to play to a certain group's popular sentiments, but courageous leaders are men and women of principle, everything else is tactics.

2. The Courage To Lead Front The Front

Words are easy but action speaks volumes. In the world of sound bites and tweets, it may seem like the ones with the catchiest or most controversial quotes win the day. But in a real world where there are real issues to be dealt with, courageous leaders are the ones who are willing to lead by example and being at the forefront of serious issues.

Leaders need to not only talk about what they believe in but they really need to be showing the way, in small and big ways. It is often the small things that are done without fanfare that speak volumes about your leadership. If you want to lead an inclusive culture in your organisation you need to be the one that goes out of your way to be inclusive in your everyday engagements.

Often leaders talk about being lean and agile but are often the ones that are costing their organisations and countries the most and very reluctant to change. Leading from the front means the courage to do what may seem 'beneath you' but as you do it, you actually become the better man or woman.

3. Courage To Set Clear Values

While this might seem like the repeat of the first point, it is not. Courageous leaders set very clear values that they expect everyone in the organisation to live by including themselves. Talking about values in leadership is very common these days but very few leaders understand the meaning of it all. Values are a not a bullet point list you come up with at a strategy meeting which gets pinned up at the office.

If your values are clear then you can hire and fire people based upon them.

Values are what everyone should be held up to and weighed upon in the organisation. If your values are clear then you can hire and fire people based on them. It's as clear as that. When your values are clear it also becomes very easy for you to make decisions about the direction of your team or organisation.

"It's not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are." - Roy E. Disney

The quote from Roy Disney is an excellent one given that the Walt Disney Studios had to act based on their values just recently. In response to Georgia's proposed "anti-gay bill" that could potentially be signed into law soon, Walt Disney Studios threatened to leave the state for its production needs should such an action take place. (See Article). It's one thing to say that you value inclusivity in your organisation and it's quite another to make decisions that will cost you in other ways so that you are true to it. "Disney and Marvel are inclusive companies, and although we have had great experiences filming in Georgia, we will plan to take our business elsewhere should any legislation allowing discriminatory practices be signed into state law," said a spokesman for the studio.

Courageous leadership calls for clarity of values communicates them and makes decisions that are based on them. Courageous leaders take the time to explain what values their 'tribe' lives by and attach real consequences to breaking away from these. Without doing so values are nothing more than just empty words on the brochures and fancy taglines.

We need courageous leaders now and we need them in all spheres of our society. The biggest challenge is for you as an individual leader to scrutinise your own leadership today. Do you have what it takes to be a courageous leader where you are? Courageous leaders have an impact that lasts long after they have gone. We now need courageous leaders for this generation, will you step up and be counted?


Buhle Dlamini speaks and consults to organisations and teams about Creating A Winning Culture and Unleashing Your Greatness.

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He is a sought-after international business speaker, entrepreneur, author of numerous books, and President of the Canadian-based Mindgro Consulting ( helping organisations create a winning culture. He's also the Chairman/Founder of Young and Able, a business development consultancy, and the joint founder of ForGood in South Africa. Although now based in Canada he speaks across Canada, the USA and South Africa.

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