C-Suite Network™

The Backbone of Leadership

Several years ago, I hosted a weekly radio show called “Lessons in Leadership.”  It was an interview format where I interviewed high-level leaders from many different industries and geographies.  One of my guests was Gus Lee, the author of Courage: The Backbone of Leadership.  Before writing the book, Gus spent decades in leadership roles, including as a young Army Officer during the Viet Nam war.

Courage in Leadership

One of my favorite quotes from Gus was, “A leader without courage is about as useful as a rowboat in a bullfight.”  Funny, and true in my experience.  Leaders, if they are effective, routinely do things that can be very uncomfortable.  Having tough conversations, confronting bad behavior, holding people accountable, challenging the status quo, choosing principle over short-term profit, and taking smart business risks with no guarantee of success.  One of the most important acts of courage is owning our own mistakes and failures.  Another radio show guest told me that one of the signs of a courageous leader is giving our teams the credit when things go well and taking the heat when they don’t.

Courage:  Hardwired or Developed?

One of my questions to Gus was, “Is courage hardwired or can we develop courage muscles?”  His unequivocal answer was, “Courage is 100% learned.”   Gus’ point of view tracked with my own experience as a young manager.  I was reluctant to have any challenging conversations.  I didn’t confront poor performance or bad behavior.  On one occasion, I failed to give a team member the feedback they needed to improve, and it became a real problem.  I was embarrassed.  My job was to help this team member be successful and I fell short.  After that, I made the commitment to give my team members the feedback they need and deserve.  In knew I had to develop some courage muscles.

Courageous Conversations

Over my career, I came to realize that most of the leadership situations that require courage is having tough conversations.  Having the tough conversations about issues that matter move things forward.  Avoiding these conversations almost always has a negative consequence.  The problem festers.  The wrong message is sent to all.  We lose respect.

Let me share an insight and a couple of tips that have helped me.

  • The insight is that the hardest part of having a tough, but necessary conversation is STARTING IT.
  • The first tip is to be very intentional about the conversation. Be clear about what you are trying to achieve.  Consider Susan Scott’s advice from “Fierce Conversations:”  Solve the problem and maintain the relationship.
  • The second tip is to prepare for opening the conversation and then –  get started. It will get easier once you get going.

Three Acts of Courage – a great place to start.

  1. Be Decisive. What decisions are you avoiding that you should be making?  Why are you holding back?  What is the cost of not deciding?
  2. Confront Reality. What are you pretending not to know?  Where are you looking the other way?
  3. Tackle your toughest challenge. What conversation am I dodging?  What is the impact of not having it?

Why Courage Matters

Organizations that don’t have a culture of candor don’t deal in reality.  Organizations that don’t take on the tough problems stay stuck.  Courage helps us move forward when things get tough.  Leaders who act with courage empower others to do the same.   Winston Churchill’s quote has always resonated with me.  “Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the one that guarantees all others.”   True in life, true in leadership.


Dr. Mark Hinderliter works with clients to develop inspiring leaders and great workplaces.  His experience as a Senior Vice President for a billion-dollar global enterprise along with a PhD in Organization and Management are a unique fusion of real-world experience and academic credentials.

Mark is a Veteran-owned Business Owner and the host of the podcast, “Creating Great Workplaces.”

Subscribe here:  https://c-suitenetwork.com/radio/shows/creating-great-workplaces/

More Articles by Author