I’ve been working with a group who are transitioning from follower to leader, and we talk a lot about the ‘attributes’ of a leader. The number one question that comes up is what characteristic makes a good leader? I tell them the answer is moral courage. 

I have come to realize I was never as concerned about my boss’ technical expertise as I was with their moral courage, probity, and ethics.

Coincidentally, Abacus Data shared the results of a poll examining Canadians opinions of the Leadership answering the question by saying:

“Leadership can be hard to define – but … people … know what they like when they see it. We gave respondents a forced-choice question about what was most important to them in deciding to support a … leader.  By a considerable margin, “values” (42%) were identified as the top quality to look for, followed by judgment (29%). “Ideas” (15%) and “attitude” (13%) were well back in consideration.

What Matters Most in a Leader?

For me, values and judgment add up to Moral Courage. In the past, courage hasn’t been recognized as an important attribute for business leaders.

This is changing.

Future leaders will need the ability to act courageously.

Without question, innovation is needed in “for’ and ‘not for’ profit businesses, but it is courage that makes change possible. 

Rosabeth Moss Kantor in a recent Harvard Business Review article wrote: ”moral courage enables people to stand up for principle rather than stand on the sidelines.” 

What is Moral Courage in Leadership?

Courage in leadership is doing what’s right, despite being afraid of risking negative repercussions.

Fear is the most common reason people give when they avoid being courageous. Think about how you feel when you watch a leader who demonstrates personal courage. Most likely, you will trust that leader more.

Courage comes from being very clear about important values and working to achieve goals that are consistent with those values.

Ultimately, every leader has the choice to either lead with courage or lead without it.

Examples of Courageous Leadership Behaviours

  1. Moral courage & humility when providing honest feedback in conversations and discussions or managing up to your supervisors or boards
  2. Allowing alternative & opposing viewpoints to be shared with the rest of the team.
  3. Speaking up rather than being compliant in silence.
  4. Leading through change & not settling for “we have always done it this way”.
  5. Taking ownership when you are in uncharted territory, and the safe path is to do nothing.

How are you, or your organization, doing at removing the barriers to morally courageous behaviour? Try this simple exercise here to find out. 

Developing Moral Courage

  1. Be very clear about your vision and values.
  2. Scripting in advance what to say
  3. Anticipate those who will disagree
  4. Have the honesty to admit when you have made a mistake or took a wrong path
  5. Be willing to entertain new ideas and change your assumptions

Courage is a learned skill, and we all have the capacity to be courageous. To be courageous means stepping out of your comfort zone and taking the risk.

As we invest in the future and emerging leaders isn’t it better that we learn values, judgment, and moral courage in a SYSTEMATIC and PURPOSEFUL way instead of allowing them to muddle through?

Do you think fear is driving your leadership actions? Here are 7 questions to prevent fear of leadership failure. 

If you’re interested in going deeper or moving your career to the next level, you’ll also want to have a look at my 1-on-1 coaching services.

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check these out, too:

How One Word Can Damage Workplace Culture

9 Stupid Management Practices (and what to do instead)

The 6T’s To Know What To Delegate

This article was originally published on January 5, 2015, and has been updated.

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