When you look at the great leaders throughout history, whether in politics, business, or sports, one quality they all have is courage. When we ask clients about the key qualities of a high performance Mindset, courage always comes up. But what is courage? As we take our discussions deeper, high performing executives in our groups often say something like, “It’s the ability to be bold, to go against the norm, to stand up when others won’t, to choose to perform regardless of fear, to step outside your comfort zone, or to be the person who has to do the unpopular thing because it’s right.” Several weeks ago, a CEO I was working with, made a really interesting comment. He said, in the last 3 years (even worse in the last year), in his opinion there has been a real vacuum of courage in leaders in business. He went on to add, “very few people today have the courage to be different, to think different, to argue for a better solution, or to risk being unpopular.”
How could this be? Is it possible that there’s a new breed of leaders who never developed courage? Having worked with many different top consulting companies, highly ranked international business schools, and very successful leaders, surely we would have heard if there was a new philosophy of leadership where courage had been discounted. So what is the reason that courage seems to be fading fast in the top of organizations?
One of the biggest causes of a lack of courage is actually fatigue. As Vince Lombardi, one of the most famous and successful American football coaches, used to always say, “Fatigue will make a coward out of everyone.” I don’t think this is just a product of sleep deprivation. This is clearly the result of several years of mounting pressures and challenges colliding with an epidemic of a lack of high performance behaviors in leaders. In 2008, when we completed our research for our book “Sink, Float, or Swim”, we reported that based solely on an executive’s Mindset, Nutrition, Movement, Recovery, and Preparation for Key Event behaviors, only 5% were swimmers, while 81% were floating and 14% were sinking. In 2010, on the heels of the downsizing and increased responsibility and accountability on leaders within an organization, we saw an interesting shift. Some leaders became more diligent with their Sustainable High Performance behaviors while others became overwhelmed. This led to a distribution of 14% being swimmers, 62% floaters, and 24% sinkers. Now comes the scary part, and probably a huge reason for the current lack of courage. In the third quarter of 2011, in the middle of a second wave of cutbacks and increased performance pressure from shareholders, we have not seen one leader with the Sustainable High Performance behaviors to be a swimmer. In fact, we have seen 53% sinkers and 47% floaters.
This is alarming because, the world economy, and many great companies, are fluctuating between sinking and floating and the only thing that will ultimately change this course is a group of leaders who have the courage to be bold, to think different, and to chart new courses (even when they are unpopular). But in order for this to happen, these leaders will need the energy, executional stamina, mental agility, and resilience to be their best. Without these things there is no way they can lead others, there is no way they can change company cultures, and there is no way they can swim. Without personal energy how will they energize others? Without executional stamina how will they push their new ideas forward? Without mental agility how will they possibly be innovative? Without resilience how will they possibly bounce back from the setbacks they will face?
So where do we start? Right now is the time for companies to teach their critical leaders (those who lead the programs, processes, and products that create meaning and momentum) the Sustainable High Performance skills they will need to be their best. Right now is the time for companies to support these critical leaders like a Formula One race team supports their car and driver in the middle of a heated race. Right now it’s time for these critical leaders to model Sustainable High Performance to their teams and the organization to create cultural change. Right now is the time for bold and courageous leadership.
I’d love to hear what you think.
By Scott Peltin
Founder & Chief Performance Officer