Courage in leadership: From the battlefield to the boardroom

The author gratefully acknowledges and extends his appreciation to Paul Beamish for his constructive and insightful comments on earlier drafts of this article.

The battlefield may be a crucible for all manner of success in life.  Survive, and you’re likely agile, decisive, quick thinking and – above all, courageous. And that courage manifests itself not just in a firefight. As this Ivey PhD and battle-tested Canadian Forces officer writes, courage means much more than bravery. It means having the character traits that make you an effective leader on the battlefield – and in the C-Suite.

The art of influencing people to do willingly what is required in order to achieve a goal is the essence of leadership. This definition applies to a wide spectrum of circumstances, ranging from the military battlefield to corporate/business situations. Its premise is valid in virtually all contexts of human endeavour where leaders and followers interact to achieve a desired objective.

It is with this commonality in mind that I consider courage in leadership in the operational military context of Task Force Kandahar in Afghanistan, in which Canadians have died in the dedicated pursuit of achieving their missions, and apply these ideas to corporate leadership.  In this article, I suggest that courage is an essential and necessary ingredient for effective leadership.  Contexts and times can change, but the main characteristics of leadership (of which courage is central) endure. While courage is a necessary trait for military leaders, I strongly suggest that it is also necessary for the corporate leader. 

Courage in the C-Suite 

To reinforce the importance of courage in the corporate/business context, consider some high-profile situations where courage was demonstrated.  Indeed, there are numerous examples that required leaders to demonstrate  courage.  Whether they involved product-harm crises, negative economic impacts, corporate reorganizations, organizational re-sizings and others, the situations required leaders to demonstrate courage in the face of adversity. 

In August 2008, when Michael H. McCain, CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, stood in front of reporters and cameras to accept responsibility for the contaminated meat debacle that resulted in numerous deaths, he undoubtedly dug deep and mustered courage.  Southwest Airlines CEO James Parker went against the industry job-slashing trend following 9/11 when he courageously announced (three days after 9/11) that he would keep all employees and start a profit-sharing program for them.  Conversely, there are ample and notable failures of corporate leadership, as Enron, WorldCom, and various U.S. banking scandals have demonstrated.  Enron directors knew that things were amiss, but lured by the prospect of lucrative financial gain (and skyrocketing share prices), none exercised courage when they addressed financial improprieties. 

The meaning of courage

Courage is a topic that receives negligible attention in managerial/leadership writings. However, an effective leader must have the courage to see difficult situations through to the end and accept responsibility for the outcomes of decisions. 

So, what is courage?  Most definitions are variations of the one in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, which states that it is, “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.”  My discussion below is based on this definition.. 

Leadership is highly personal; what works for one person might not work for another.  However, an absolute truth prevails. Leadership must start from within – from within the leader’s heart – where real courage resides.  It is not simply a case of memorizing a list of do’s or don’ts and applying them to a particular situation.  Courage is a necessary trait of effective leadership.  It is hard to argue that other traits such as integrity, honesty, altruism, communications skill and decisiveness are not qualities of a good leader. But leaders could not display these traits if they didn’t have courage.  To General George Patton, the most important quality of a good leader was a willingness to make decisions. This takes courage.  Peter Drucker emphasized integrity as being the “touchtone of a good manager.” This too takes courage.

I present a discussion of leadership in the dangerous Afghan operational context, in which lives are directly at stake. I also develop my observations into a series of recommendations for business leaders/managers, whose activities are often driven by the overarching objective of shareholder wealth-maximization. 

At its core, and despite obvious differences, the importance of courage spans the two worlds.  The Afghan situation, like any other lethal, operational context of armed conflict, is typified by remarkable complexities, superimposed on the inevitable “fog of war.”  Leaders can’t always slow the tempo to a desired rate; in battle, the tempo is high and leaders have no choice but to contend with it and work within its parameters.  Leadership practise forged under these circumstances can also benefit the civilian manager.

The operational context

Over the last decade, Canada’s military has been actively engaged in the multinational, NATO-led war in Afghanistan.  Although we are in the process of shifting our focus from hands-on combat operations to one of training Afghan forces to do the job themselves, the conduct of operational missions remains foremost, at the centre of activities.  Prior to this shift in focus, about 3,000 Canadian Forces (CF) personnel served in varying capacities in southern Afghanistan.  About 37,000 CF members have been deployed to Afghanistan during Canada’s tenure there.  However, owing to multiple deployments by some individual members, there have been over 48,000 deployments.  Some people have experienced two, three, or more tours of duty.  All were part of a military “system” that fundamentally hinged on “leadership.”

The Afghan context is a hodgepodge of complexities with political, geographic, and cultural dimensions.  Leaders must be sensitive to the diverse people and the land.  They especially need to understand the cultural nuances in which they operate.  Not only must they understand the idiosyncrasies of the indigenous people, they must also appreciate the various cultures of the people that they must lead in this multinational military environment.  Senior leaders must generate a unified fighting force with soldiers from a diverse variety of nations.

The Canadian area of operations in Kandahar Province was multifarious. Set against a background mosaic of beige and green hues were benign-appearing sights such as children laughing and playing, farmers working their plots of land, and starkly simple mud-walled structures. But such idyllic scenes masked the concealed presence of the most horrific and potentially deadliest, make-shift devices designed to kill and maim — Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). 

Leaving the relative safety of the main base of operations, Kandahar Airfield (KAF) — known as going outside the wire — one immediately stepped right into this exceptionally dangerous environment.  It was one in which, without warning, IEDs were detonated.  Inert garbage piles, road culverts, garden paths, and road-side ditches were favourite hiding spots for the lethal, Taliban-installed, IEDs.  Many could pack enough explosive force to flip a 17-ton personnel-carrying light armoured vehicle (LAV) into the air like a toy, decimating its precious human contents.  It was in this unnerving context that leaders had to demonstrate courage and in so doing, motivate and lead their subordinates through the dangerous Afghan landscape.

These actions demonstrated requisite leadership traits.

1. A leader must be in front of subordinates.  This takes courage.  Leadership from the front encapsulates the adage, never ask a subordinate to do something that you, the leader, wouldn’t do.  In Afghanistan, the leader must not only be in front, but he or she must be seen to be in front.  Subordinates seek this reassurance from their leaders at all levels.  Though they may be tentative, leaders must demonstrate character and moral strength.  Their credibility is inextricably dependent on their ability to do so..  During his frequent visits to Afghanistan, former Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Rick Hillier, made a point of visiting troops that were situated in some of the most IED-laden areas of the Canadian sector.  Through his demonstrated courage, he inspired leaders of all levels.  “If the CDS goes there, so can I” was the resulting mindset.  The current CDS, General Walt Natynczyk, has successfully continued this practice.

2. A leader must possess and demonstrate moral fibre that facilitates courage.  Although it can take years to build and is hard-earned, credibility can be lost in a split second if a leader makes a choice that is morally wrong.  Last year in Afghanistan, a brigadier-general was relieved of command for having pursued a romantic relationship with a subordinate, something that was forbidden in a theatre of operations. In a flash, a solid reputation evaporated.  His violation of the rules, which apply equally to all members of the Task Force, necessitated swift  and forceful reaction by his superiors/leaders.  They immediately relieved him of command and repatriated him to Canada to face disciplinary/legal proceedings.  This was an unpleasant decision for the current CDS to have made. However, on a battlefield or in a boardroom, the effective leader makes hard decisions courageously.  In this case, justice was forcefully and immediately applied, thus re-invigorating the fortitude of the system’s leadership.

3. A leader must act quickly and decisively when faced with moral issues.  When a subordinate does something wrong, a leader must react instantly, with fairness, to the situation at hand.  The potential for discipline to disintegrate is especially high among troops in an extremely violent environment. Military history provides ample examples of this: Nanjing, My Lai, and on a smaller scale, in Afghanistan, when a Canadian junior officer was recently found guilty of killing a mortally wounded enemy (Taliban) member.  In each case, leadership failed, as emotions driven by the prevailing pressures overrode sound thinking and acceptable leadership practice.

4. Leaders must actively ensure that dignity and respect are maintained in environments where substantial linguistic and cultural barriers exist between soldiers and the local population.. A failure to attain and maintain respect with corresponding cultural sensitivity can lead to the degradation of discipline, and in turn, negative incidents.  Leaders at all levels must set the highest standard, through courageous personal example, for respect of others, particularly the indigenous population.  Disparaging remarks, culturally-focused negative comments and the like must not be permitted.  Instances as those described above can occur when antagonism is allowed to develop and fester.

The corporate context: Four pillars of leadership

There is at least one conceptual difference between leadership in the military and in business.  To the military, the military is leadership, a principle that is inculcated throughout the entire system.  In contrast, most organizations view management as being of primary concern, and leadership as something that is to be used only when the situation demands it.  Notwithstanding such a view, I believe that leadership is critical in business and should be practised constantly, and by all levels of management.

In Afghanistan, when personnel leave the relative safety of being inside the wire at KAF, their going outside the wire greatly increases the probability of injury and/or death.  They leave the relative security and familiarity of a comfortable environment, and enter a world of heightened tension and unknowns, which increases the importance of leadership.  Subordinates look to leaders for reassurance, guidance, and direction.  The effective leader, one with courage, is able to deliver.

In a similar vein, the corporate leader too can go outside the wire — leave a predictable and familiar environment — and enter a setting where his/her courage in leadership is tested.  The business leader who acts with courage and has built his/her leadership skill on a solid footing by the effective, continual, and daily exercise of leadership will succeed.  As mentioned earlier, when Maple Leaf Foods experienced a critical incident event (food contamination), Michael McCain went outside the wire, rose to the occasion, and mustered courage that was enabled by years of daily leadership practise.  With courage, he acknowledged problems and started a process to make things right. 

Many of the problems faced by managers today, at all levels, stem from the fact that the art of leadership in business seems to be wavering, and is being replaced by mechanical processes of control that seem to make little distinction between the person and the machines that make up the system.  

Modern managerial techniques, introduced in the name of efficiency and economy, often tend to dehumanize the organization and its constituent individuals.  Because machines obey instructions consistently and without questions or complaint, many managers assume that people should respond in the same way.  They don’t.  People have capacities, strengths and breaking points that vary from individual to individual, and from situation to situation.  Unlike computers,  human performance is influenced, for better or for worse, by a wide range of emotions that reflect in large measure, the quality of leadership being exercised.  Because the leader is working with that infinitely complex entity called a human being, he/she must be more of an artist than a mechanic. 

In addition to courage, one might reasonably ask what other personal characteristics an effective leader must have?  I propose that leaders should possess four essential attributes: loyalty, knowledge, integrity, and courage.  The first three can be seen as being supported by the fourth – courage.

1. Loyalty. Employee loyalty is discussed infrequently in business school but it is crucial.  A good leader must display two kinds of loyalty. First, loyalty must be shown to those above, to one’s superiors and through them, to the organization.  At the same time, loyalty must be shown to those below, to one’s subordinates. It is sometimes difficult to achieve the optimal balance between these loyalties that move in opposite directions. After all, what middle or lower manager hasn’t had the temptation to demean those in higher management in the presence of subordinates?  Whenever there is a conflict, loyalty to superiors and the organization must prevail.  To do otherwise would typically undermine the structure and integrity of the entire organization and in the long-run, harm would ensue.

2. Knowledge. Leaders have to be knowledgeable if they are to be efficient and command respect from subordinates and superiors alike.  Learning is a never-ending process and leaders have to make every effort to be informed.  Formal education is important but self-education is really the answer.  Every effort has to be made to study a given problem with every available means at hand.  Leaders must fully and intimately understand an issue, problem, or situation from the perspective of their subordinates (using their frames of reference) if they are to make appropriate decisions and practise effective and efficient leadership.

3. Integrity. Integrity is crucial to leadership.  It means refusing to deceive others in any way, no matter what the circumstances  — in other words, doing the right thing when no one is watching, or knows.  It is character, as the author Stephen Covey puts it.  Leaders have to make decisions and accept their results.  Leaders are responsible for the success or failure of their own actions.  Mistakes should be admitted and lessons learned from the mistakes.  Real leaders don’t try to bluff their way out of a bad situation or shake responsibility to others. 

4. Courage. All leaders need courage. It is the lynchpin of effective leadership.  No one respects a wimp who will buy in to any idea no matter how inane it might be.  Courage is having the strength of character to persist and hold on to ideas in the face of opposition.  Here, I’m not restricting my treatment of courage as it relates to fear.  It’s also about strength of character and devotion to causes and ideas.  It takes courage to tell the boss what he/she does not want to hear, or to reprimand an employee, or to make unpopular decisions.  Most of all, it takes courage to be a leader.

Actions speak louder than words.  Leaders at all levels must, by example, act out their expectations for subordinates.  Their demonstrated honesty and openness must prevail always.  Loyalty must never waver and must be practised by all leaders.  Leaders must establish and maintain open communications with subordinates.  Subordinates need to know that their suggestions will be listened to.  Subordinates need to be given a voice.  All of these leadership points are facilitated by a leader who has courage.

Leadership (and its key constituent – courage) is not something to simply bring forward to exercise at opportune times.  It must be practised day in and day out.  Courage is the centrepiece of leadership, and commonly and rightly, it is understood to be a critical component of success in military operations.  Yet courage must prevail and be exercised in the corporate realm, where it is also critical.  As we know, courage is not only a necessary core component of effective leadership.  It is the platform – the requisite platform – on which other important tenets of leadership are built.