Demonstrating Courage in the Face of Uncertainty: Top Teams in Tough Times

Many years ago, I heard this definition: Courage is an equation composed of doubt plus commitment.

            Courage = Doubt + Commitment

What is it that makes real Top Teams capable of operating in and through tough times? We need little reminder to see how turbulent and unpredictable the world is or how closely we are linked together. Our challenges continue to change, our partnerships broaden, our economies intertwine, our information accelerates, and our politics shift. The paradoxes we are asked to manage only increase in number and complexity. Yet, if we look at how Top Teams operate in tough times, we see important things that do not change: the values and principles, the commitment to success, the determination to leave a legacy, and the sense of how many people rely on them as leaders, friends, and parents. In the face of these waves of change and never-ending responsibilities, how do Top Teams find the courage to get up and face every day with optimism, enthusiasm, and curiosity?

There is no question that doubt, whether it is about how long the economy will fluctuate or whether a firm will retain profitability, is a very real part of the intellectual and emotional fabric of anyone’s thinking.  Doubt, by itself, is at worst paralytic, and at least distracting. Commitment requires that leadership teams take an active role in crafting a vision of the future and articulating what each individual must expect and do to move forward. US General David Petreaus makes the point that the central role of leaders is to “Get the big ideas right and oversee their implementation by being at the ‘point of decision.’” This is real engagement, where realism and commitment equate to courage. In other words, it is being fully in the game no matter what.

Marshall Goldsmith, in his wonderful book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, describes good leaders as operating with a relentless view of the future and embracing those behaviors that reinforce the New. We think of this in our off-site Advances with leadership teams. Unfortunately, many teams are acting as if they are in “retreat” right now, because they are uncertain about their changing roles and goals.  They are unsure about what the criteria for success will be in the years ahead. As mentioned before in previous blogs, an ongoing dialogue process that is connected to the “senior purpose” (what we are for) and focused on critical priorities is essential among these executive teams. Introspection and honest review are necessary but insufficient, as any team that aspires to develop has to also look at the future and at what is possible. Then any TopTeam has to muster the courage (doubt = commitment) to move toward what is possible. As our friend and good leader Elizabeth Bastoni suggests, “If you create dialogue in the good times, you have a better chance of having the right conversations when things are going bad.”

Jake Jackson, a recently retired senior vice president of a major financial institution, makes the point that leadership teams have a choice: they can go forward with fear or with trust. Jake believes that teams cannot operate successfully and capture opportunities in a tough market if they are governed by fear. Thus, the only choice is to embrace the challenges and go forward with optimism and trust.


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