There is a question all leaders ought to ask themselves. It is a question I strive to answer not only about myself but about everyone I advise on leadership. The question is simple: “Where am I a coward?”
The word “coward” is so jarring that we recoil from it. Let me frame it up a bit, and then let’s apply it to the way we lead.
I like the Mirriam-Webster definition of cowardice: “fear that makes you unable to do what is right or expected.” This is certainly part of our answer. Cowardice is based in fear, and it prevents right action. In this definition, we see the standard image of cowardice—the guy who runs from a fight or the guy who hides from his responsibilities.
This is helpful and it is part of the understanding we need, but it is not all that we need. I want to add to this that cowardice can also make us fight the wrong fights to avoid bravely facing the right ones.
We all have insecurities and we all have fears. We naturally want to avoid both. So, most of us develop behavior throughout our lives that helps us avoid what we fear while not looking like complete weaklings.
I have sat in a board room and watched a CEO pick small fights with his staff about language and procedure all to avoid having to courageously deal with the big problem facing him. He wouldn’t just jump up, run to his office, and suck his thumb in a corner while trembling with fear—which is probably what he felt like doing. He also wouldn’t face difficult reality. So, he created alternate fights that allowed him to bluster and bully. It was all cowardly theater to avoid doing the brave and difficult thing.
I’ve watched a husband and wife who had a difficult son pour all their frustration and anger out on each other but never take the battle directly to the misbehaving son. Harsh as it may sound, they were cowards. And it nearly destroyed their marriage.
I know an executive director who grew up in a home that was always tight on money. The checkbook always told a sad tale. So, when he got into business, he avoided financial reports by talking about how geeky his firm’s accountants were and how he could never understand anything they were saying. The truth is he was afraid to deal truthfully with money. It hurt him—until he was shown what he was doing and he started facing facts. Only then did he become a huge success.
Now, what about you? Take careful stock of your fears. Try to find any place in your leadership where you retreat from the difficult but necessary task. Do you pick small fights about non-essentials to avoid bigger battles over important matters? Do you have socially acceptable techniques for avoiding responsibilities?
Once you’ve located your “cowardly skits,” then declare war on them. Admit them. Define the true battle clearly. Face it. Get help. Make facing your real battles a regular part of your routine. For example, that executive director who hid from financial reports now insists on seeing financial reports first thing every day. He’s facing his fears. He’s fighting the right fight. He’s leading well.
You can too.
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