Are you a confident leader or a courageous leader?

By Heather Campbell

An HGV was slowly reversing down the hill towards my friend’s car. My friend flashed the headlights and jumped on the car horn. Then manoeuvred the car onto the verge, leapt out and ran. He heard a loud bang – turning round, he saw that the driver of another HGV (one branded with a well-known UK supermarket) had used his truck to stop the reversing vehicle. At the same time, the driver of the reversing vehicle came running back down the hill.

It turned out, the driver of the HGV hadn’t been reversing. He’d left the vehicle without putting on the brake. This was a case of a backward moving, runaway HGV!

My friend was surprisingly calm, given what the outcome could have been. Imagine if there had been no verge…

We were initially impressed by the courage the driver of the second HGV had shown. But, on reflection, I wonder if his action was one of confidence rather than courage.

Are you a confident leader or are you a courageous leader?

Truth is, you need to be both confident and courageous. It’s more a matter of getting the mix right than of ‘either/or’.

Back to those trucks.

Did the driver of that supermarket HGV act with confidence or courage?

Maybe he knew that his truck would easily stop the one reversing towards him because he had the data to work out that it was safe to do so. Maybe HGV drivers are specifically trained in how to stop runaway trucks. If so, I’d suggest he acted primarily with confidence because his action was based primarily on knowledge, understanding and skill.

But I think he added on a good dose of courage too. After all, even if he had the knowledge and skill to take confident action, there was still a risk that things might go wrong. At least, I can only imagine that some level of danger crossed his mind. In this case, his confidence was the foundation from which he took courageous action.
Confidence and courage are different. Confidence means trusting in, or even feeling completely sure of, your situation and yourself. Courage means facing and dealing with anything that is dangerous, difficult or painful, instead of withdrawing from it.

I see impressive examples of both confidence and courage in my work with leaders every day.

The Managing Director who has to close his manufacturing plant for an indefinite period of time due to global supply issues, but keeps on his workforce when he could have made them redundant. Solid analysis of the known business impact of this decision gives him confidence about the potential size of the impact and the business’s ability to bear it. But it requires courage to take the action because there is no certainty of when – or if – things will get back on track.

The HR Director who chooses to put herself forward for the role of CEO in an organisation where only male engineers have previously been appointed to the role. Her confidence in her ability, her understanding of the firm and judicious conversations with peers as to the wisdom of her decision gave her the confidence to apply. But it required courage to risk the rejection that could follow.

The Head of Operations who finally stepped in to support her colleague in the face of a blistering attack from a bullying CEO during a senior leadership team meeting, while other team members bowed their heads and thanked their lucky stars it wasn’t their turn this month. Her confidence was based on her skill to intervene effectively and her strong value-system that said this behaviour couldn’t continue. But it took courage to risk the CEO’s wrath being turned on her in the meeting or being played out in the longer-term in a myriad of different ways.

All real examples that, for me, highlight that confidence is the bedrock on which courage is built. Courage means stepping into danger but, for business leaders, this courage should be based on confidence driven by clear data, facts and solid experience.

Courage without clear data, facts and solid experience risks being foolhardy – putting ourselves, our organisations and the people we lead in danger because of potentially reckless or rash decisions and actions.

Getting the balance between confidence and courage is essential for any leader. Working constantly in a zone of confidence will be relatively low stress and likely to bring predictable outcomes. The problem is, those predictable outcomes will also lead you to a point of stagnation, because there is no growth if we work constantly from a position of confidence.

We have to push boundaries to grow, and pushing boundaries takes courage because the very act of stepping into the unknown means we face dangers and difficulties and pain. We can’t know for certain what the outcome will be. Growth – as individuals and as organisations – demands courage.

What balance of confidence and courage will you need this week? What data do you need to take courageous decisions and actions that are founded on confidence? Are there areas where desire to operate from a point of confidence is preventing growth? Where might you need to act with greater courage?

And whether acting from confidence or courage, as always, observe yourself and others with interest and learning, not with criticism and judgement. It really will make for a better world!

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