When times get tough, we turn to leaders for courage. Yet rarely is courage found in the competency profile of any leadership position. Selection systems cannot abide responding to queries from rejected candidates with “You were not found to be courageous enough for the job.”
No one wants to be rejected on the basis of something they cannot easily change or control. Right or not, courage is perceived as inborn rather than learned. Competency frameworks dance around attributes like courage.
A retired British ODA advisor recently shared a career moment: “I was in a traditional Zimbabwean village explaining leadership development to the local chief. Why we got onto this subject I cannot remember. He replied that this had always been the way with chiefs, otherwise you end up with a spear in your back.”
What this story illustrates with humour is the idea of the leader as hero – called to action by a serious, urgent, or growing threat. Heroic leaders respond in times of need or crisis through the power of commitment. Their resolve is unshakeable and superordinate to other causes. We admire and celebrate these leaders, despite their human foibles and fears.
The heroine of The Book of Negroes is Aminata Diallo, a West African girl of eleven sold into slavery in the American colonies in 1756. Canadian novelist Lawrence Hill tells a people’s story of oppression, loss, and emancipation. As one of the Nova Scotians, Aminata is repatriated to Sierra Leone in 1787. She gives testimony in London for passage of the Bill to end the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in 1807.
Aminata is courageous and a survivor. Her commitment comes from an enduring belief in a higher purpose for her life as a storyteller for her people. Her resilience is grounded in faith and love of family. She manages to bridge the chasms between antagonists, making them better for knowing her.
Public service leaders need to face challenges head-on to be effective policy advisors and crisis managers. They must have the courage to provide fearless advice, push for change, and stand behind decisions. They must navigate accountability labyrinths with political savvy, enacting tough decisions in an era of fiscal restraint. Risk aversion is not a viable option.
Martin Luther King understood both the dream and the risks of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. He led three marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 to secure voting rights for Black Americans. It was a dramatic act of collective courage that still inspires human rights advocates worldwide. The heroism of Selma was not so far removed from the commitment of the Nova Scotians 178 years earlier.
John Wilkins was a Commonwealth diplomat and a career public servant in Canada. He is Associate Director with the Public Management Program in the Schulich School of Business at York University (email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org).