Courage is a quality that leaders are expected to possess. There is the common but wrong assumption that courageous leaders are simply fearless individuals. The Oxford Dictionary defines courage as the ability to do something that frightens you. I agree with this and believe that courage is not the absence of fear but the ability to take positive action in spite of it.
Richard Stengel recounts a great courageous story about Nelson Mandela in a Time magazine article. Stengel, the managing editor of TIME, collaborated with Nelson Mandela on Mandela’s best-selling 1993 autobiography – Long Walk to Freedom. Both were on board a tiny propeller plane in 1994, during the South African presidential-election campaign. They were 20 minutes away from the destination, Natal, when one of the plane’s engines failed. The other passengers began to panic but Mandela quietly read his newspaper seemingly oblivious to the commotion around him. His calmness helped reassure the rest of the crew and the pilot was able to land the plane safely. It was later when Mandela was in the car with Stengel that he confessed that he was terrified during the ordeal.
Mandela knew that fear was as contagious as courage. This was the reason why he stayed calm in the plane when panic was spreading out. Fear and panic paralyses effective decisions and actions because it clouds judgement and magnifies worst case scenarios. Courage enables you to decide and act without letting the fear paralyse you. The display of courage by a leader usually encourages his followers.
Mandela also told Stengel that because of his role as the key apartheid leader, the ability to stay calm and appear fearless helped inspire and energise his followers especially when he was in prison for 27 years. When a leader loses his cool, it usually motivates his followers to lose their heads. Mandela knew that his people were taking their reaction cues from him and it was his responsibility to set the right example for them to follow. This sense of responsibility was what empowered him to be courageous even when he was terrified.
A leader can be vulnerable with his trusted few but needs to display strength when dealing with the fickle majority. Ambrose Redmoon summed ‘courage’ up nicely when he said that “courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear.”
Some other quotes that capture the essence of courage:
Bravery is being the only one who knows you’re afraid. ~Franklin P. Jones
Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point. ~C.S. Lewis
Courage is nine-tenths context. What is courageous in one setting can be foolhardy in another and even cowardly in a third. ~Joseph Epstein
Courage is never to let your actions be influenced by your fears. ~Arthur Koestler