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The best CEOs have this trait. Here's how to master it

Adult Hispanic woman Caucasian man CEO executive team businessman businesswoman business people in conference meeting room in contemporary modern office daylight sunset dusk talking planning thinking strategy well dressed suit diversity multi-ethnic problems solutions unity cityscape downtown urban new beginnings breaking new ground decisions choices the way forward  contemplation vision focus choices decisions solitude quiet alone
There’s one trait that's key for effective leadership. (Source: Getty)

The best CEOs now and well into the future of work will share a number of key traits that have in the past too often been overlooked: like empathy, optimism and compassion.

But there’s one trait that’s needed to do all of this, as well as to be able to make the key decisions needed to effectively lead.

That is courage.

Of course it’s courage that’s needed to show decisiveness in meeting changing work demands, tech transformations and responding quickly to emergencies.

But it’s also courage that’s needed to show the vulnerabilities and the trust required to build empathy.

Courage to take a stand on key issues concerning your staff, customers, the community you operate in and impact on the environment. To show compassion and a higher purpose in the face of other demands.


And courage to innovate. To leap out of the known mediocrity into the potential of greatness.

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Ultimately, courage marks the difference between a standard get-it-done leader or manager, and the leader — the CEO — with vision, the one aiming to move the business forward in leaps, with the added purpose of supporting human progress beyond shareholder value.

It’s courage that sees some CEOs go against their peers: courage that sees them make the first move, be that a statement on diversity, a stance on the environment, a remote working policy, banning a high profile user from their platform and admitting “we failed”, or something else.

Often, then, other CEOs will follow this lead, having believed they too should have taken such a stand, but waiting it out to see the damage the first mover would suffer.

And it’s courage too that sees CEOs pivoting their business in order to help in a crisis. They innovate and shift entire factory lines in order to deliver the emergency products required, as some CEOs did during the pandemic.

One example is Mary Barra at GM, who has long been known for making significant and tough decisions on the future of the business, and led the automaker to become the first to commit to using their facilities to create essential COVID-19 supplies.

Those that use courage effectively have authenticity, resilience, emotional intelligence, self discipline and a commitment to purpose, according to HBR’s recent assessment of courageous characteristics.

These are characteristics that can be developed, and there’s no shortage of leadership courses, mentoring and training that CEOs can pursue in order to improve on each of these areas.

For the most part, we’ve long been in a courage deficit. Especially as CEOs take cover, avoiding any political blowback that might come from taking a stand.

But we’re at a turning point, where taking cover on avoiding these big so-called risks may turn out to be a riskier proposition. With more customers, particularly, determining what they will and won’t accept from big businesses.

Is courage innate? Is it learnt?

Courage is practiced. It’s lived. It requires a direct decision to make bold moves that carry personal risks. It can be switched on and worked on.

But courage comes in different forms.

There’s a level of courage that comes only from a mindset that considers dollars. It’s one that may deliver short term results, but can only take a CEO and organisation so far.

The best courage will come from the heart. It moves beyond spreadsheets and numbers to find ways to use leadership and business to meet a clear purpose that actually gives something to humanity.

In many, if not most cases, that means drastically changing how that business operates, repositioning it for stakeholder value.

Courage that aims to do good is the ultimate legacy, greater than any one bonus, number on a spreadsheet, or any length of tenure in a top job.

And given the role boards have in selecting CEOS, the most courageous business acts of the future may come from the boards that select courageous CEOs: especially when boards finally seek a fresh approach.

A start for mastering courage in leadership

Develop a bold and clear vision, with heart.

With this vision, you’ll have something to measure every important decision against. This clear destination will aid you in staying true to your purpose, no matter what challenges get in the way.

Nurture your self awareness.

Know the limits of your courageous behaviour. Know your strengths and weaknesses and how they may be dictating your decision-making. Have enough self awareness to ask for help and to learn from others.

Practice empathy and compassion.

Yes, compassion and empathy can lead to courage. It allows you to see multiple sides, to seek to relate and understand your key stakeholders – and ultimately then to make key decisions that create good and just outcomes for them.

Stay optimistic but aware.

Big decisions need as much information as possible. They should aim to anticipate massive risks and shifts that are coming in the future, but then to also see the opportunity within them. Courageous responses don’t aim to mitigate risks, they optimistically look to turn risk into massive leaps forward.

Angela Priestley is a Yahoo Finance contributor, writing on family finances and juggling work with kids. She is the founding editor of Women’s Agenda, co-founder of Agenda Media and a mum of three young boys.

This is part 12 of our Jobs 2021 series, where Yahoo Finance is exploring how to succeed in the next decade: earn more, lead better and win in the next decade of work.

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