“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not the one who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
Anti-apartheid revolutionary, politician and President of South Africa Nelson Mandela (1918-2013).

Author: South Africa The Good News /; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: South Africa The Good News /; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

I have no question that a key necessary element for any successful manager is to have a high degree of managerial courage.

Someone once defined managerial courage to me as being prepared to make the tough decisions and taking responsibility for them, but I believe that this is too simple a definition as I believe that it is much broader than this, so here are 10 of the key criteria that I consider to be critical.

To face reality … A successful manager has to ensure that he and his team can face the realities of the business situation, as a false view can create complacency when serious remedial action may be needed. Too many managers try and find enough good news about how things are going to enable them to put a tick in the box and move on. I once had a new sales manager try and convince me of the veracity of his $10m sales forecast for the quarter based on his having a total team pipeline of about $100m. The problem was that deeper analysis showed that none of the opportunities in the pipeline were advanced enough in the sales cycle to be able to close within the next 90 days. The $10m forecast was based on hope and little else.

To rely on others … You can’t do it all yourself no matter how much of a control freak you are. It takes courage to rely on other people to do what is needed to drive your success as well as their own, but delegation is a key to success, not only by sharing the load, but also by enabling people to be trusted and challenged so that they can learn, grow and develop.

To weed out those who can’t succeed … I have long believed that if you hire people for their strengths, you have no right to fire them for their weaknesses without first working hard to help them to try and overcome these. However, the time may come when you realise that no matter how hard you both try, this particular person will never rise to the needed level of competency needed in this role, and that it is time to part company. It takes courage to do this quickly and decisively, particularly if you were the manager responsible for their recruitment, but it has to be done without hesitation for the sake of the individual involved so they can move to a more suitable role, as well as for the team and the company.

To question the status quo … I have found that in most companies, promotions come faster for those who are seen to protect the status quo than for those who are creative and who are prepared to question those things that are considered untouchables. Successful managers have to be courageous enough to question the right to survival of all sacred cows, and to even turn some into hamburgers if they have outlived their use-by-dates.

Author: en:User:ChrisO; GFDL/CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: en:User:ChrisO; GFDL/CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

To test the boundaries … I have always told my people that I trust them to do the job that I have asked them to do and that they should be courageous enough to test their boundaries, which meant that when dealing with me it was better to seek forgiveness than to seek approval. The problem is that when you are scared to test the boundaries and go to your boss for approval all the time, s/he may say no, which then means that for you to proceed is insubordination, which is unacceptable.

To live by and enforce the values … It is not enough to talk about the values, not even if you have them carved into stone; you also have to live by them and to ensure that so does every member of the team, especially the top performers. It takes courage for a manager to tell a high performing employee that while you appreciate them achieving their goals, their behaviour is unacceptable. You cannot, for example, allow a highly successful salesman to leave a trail of body bags as a by-product of their successful results, no matter how much business they are generating.

To make decisions … Procrastination is easy, and one can always justify holding off on a decision because of a heavy workload, but the longer you hold off on taking a decision the more the situation can deteriorate. Have the courage to make a decision and then commit to it. If you are an experienced manager, the direction that you decide to take, from some well thought through alternatives, will be less important than your commitment to its execution. I see more failures from procrastination, or a lack of execution and commitment, than I do from the actual decision taken.

To tell the truth … It takes courage to stand up in front of your boss and tell him something that you know s/he is not going to like, especially if they an aggressive, self-opinionated, brilliant founder of the company, but it is important do so. If in doubt, remember the story of the Emperor’s new clothes. I accept that there may be some instances when it may be better to stay silent, but when asked for your opinion it is ultimately more important that you are honest rather than follow the yes-men.

Author: Vilhelm Pedersen (1820 - 1859); via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Vilhelm Pedersen (1820 – 1859); via Wikimedia Commons

To take calculated risks … Business life is full of risk, and managers are paid to take calculated risks as a natural part of their responsibilities. You take risks with your recruitment, your business strategies and their execution and in driving change. Just doing the same thing over and over again is a recipe for disaster.

To be yourself … You need courage to be yourself rather than to play-act a role that you think will be best accepted in the organisation. Integrity means that what you think is the same as what you say is the same as what you do. I have seen managers who are very loving, caring and tender people with their family and friends and then try and act like tyrants in business. It won’t work as ultimately people will see through you, and your role playing won’t be effective.

Aristotle understood all this 2400 years ago when he said “You will never achieve anything in this world without courage. It is the greatest quality of the mind next to honour.“

Source: Jastrow (2006); via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Jastrow (2006); via Wikimedia Commons



  1. Sandy E says:

    Oh, you are a true treasure, you are such an inspiration, my team are now well and truly extended to greater limits.

    We all believe if you are not sitting on the edge you are taking up too much space.

    When I said we will deliver this new product in 12 weeks’ time, knowing my aim was 16 weeks, and if I said that they would take 20, they all fell off their chairs.

    Now that they can see my plan and that we have broken this into bight size pieces and each of us will take a piece, we think we can do 14 weeks.

    As a team they have moved from thinking impossible to possible.

    Les, what is truly great is that we are all having fun and as Alberto (our Mexican) said the tough is now simple and the hard is easy and the impossible just takes a little longer.

    He has grown from eyes wide open when I ask him to do something to enjoying the challenge.

    I am looking forward to chatting next weekend.

    I will forward your Mandela quote to them.

    Regards Sandy E

  2. Simon says:

    Les, excellent! agree with every point (even though I may not want to) – Simon

  3. Adriana says:

    Mr. Hayman, today I finished reading your blog and I need to thank you as somehow I feel you coached me, shaped me, even defined me… and in a way you were always “there” for me feeding my hunger for answers…

    And… speaking of managerial courage… When setting professional goals, or when accepting a negotiated target… how can one know precisely where the line between “realistic-optimist” and “utopic” is traced?

    Your enthusiastic fan, Adriana

    • leshayman says:

      Adriana, to effectively negotiate goals/budget you need to have a good understanding of the elements that effect it … customers, market, industry, economic environment, challenges etc., which I consider to be things that any professional would want to understand anyway as part of their job. The rest is just negotiation skills. However, you should never accept goals that you don’t believe in, as once you accept them you must deliver … better to fight for what you really believe is possible … with effort. Les

  4. Pingback: Joe and Wanda on Management » Courage – A Management Virtue

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