by Christopher Hoenig

Courage and integrity are at the core of successful leadership.

Nov 01, 20006 mins
IT Leadership

Leadership grows from courage and integrity, and their seeds lie in everyone. These character traits are primarily learned, not innate. And no matter what your past or present, cultivating their role in your life can make your future bolder, more decisive and more successful.

Courage is the ability to do what needs to be done, regardless of the cost or risk. Integrity is the ability to do the right thing, no matter what the doubts or temptations. A leader who can consistently do the right things, when they need to be done, is a leader with courage and integrity.

The process of building courage and integrity starts with very small moments, out of the spotlight, where only you are there to judge. It begins when you first consciously exercise courage in the face of fear, when you first exercise integrity in the face of doubt. Like any other skill, your ability to perform is a function of how much practice you have. This practice compounds like interest over the long run and builds the stock of capability and internal resources you will need when confronting the big moments in your career. If you consistently exercise courage and integrity on a small scale and push yourself gradually to higher levels, your stocks will be high when you need them. There are no instant-hero formulas.

Friend and Foe

Fear and doubt are simultaneously a leader’s two greatest allies and two greatest enemies. As an ally, fear provides self-awareness, a sense of urgency and information. Doubt, on the other hand, forms the core of scientific objectivity and learning. Yet in reality, both can be enemies. Fear can infect quickly, paralyzing action and innovation. Doubt-whether it is about what is right or oneself-can be at the root of corruption, ignorance and negligence. A leader’s success in cultivating courage and integrity is ultimately an exercise in balance.

One defining challenge for me occurred while competing for my first executive position. I had made a proposal for a bold new direction that I felt the organization needed to take. The senior members of management-the same ones who would either elect me to the top levels or deny me the promotion-were deeply split. One faction, led by the chief operating officer, was actively disdainful of my effort. The COO questioned the professionalism of my approach, cast doubt about its value and sowed fear throughout the organization about the risks of doing something so new.

Another faction was supportive. But they were relatively new outsiders. Their power was in question, and they had less influence on my promotion than the other faction. Then there was the CEO, who seemed to be encouraging me but who was a master of inscrutability, never really showing where his cards were. It was a situation in which I had to overcome fear and doubt in order to lead.

My strategy was simple: persistence, persuasiveness and professionalism. I made no power plays and no direct assaults against my opponents. I simply showed, at every step and in a highly visible way, that I wouldn’t be bullied, that my logic was sound, that the benefits were real, that my approach was professional.

Demonstrating Integrity

In terms of integrity, I concentrated on doing the right thing while taking appropriate protective measures (see “Playing Defense,” CIO, March 1, 2000). Sometimes, my emotional reactions to the politics threatened to derail my deliberate strategy. To avoid overreacting, I talked things through with colleagues who were trusted sounding boards. Over the years, I have learned that, to demonstrate integrity, you need to:

Accept doubt, and use it to your advantage. It is at the core of science and reliable knowledge, which is the foundation for good judgment.Articulate and uphold principles and values that you believe in. Distill them from your upbringing, take cues from the moral leaders you respect, but know what you believe in and why.

Focus on what is right for both the organization and the people involved. Take responsibility for exercising judgment and balancing competing interests toward an overall goal.

Take the high road whenever possible, while protecting yourself. Demonstrate by example that you expect the most of others as well as yourself, but make it clear you know how to fight to survive.

Be honest with yourself and learn from your mistakes. Nothing is more important to continuous self-improvement.

Be gracious. Learn to forgive and forget when appropriate, both with others and yourself.

Building Courage

Now back to my story. There were moments when I genuinely feared that not only would the project fail but so would my promotion. I sometimes dwelled on dark visions of being stuck forever in my obscure office. But with a combination of encouraging words from supporters, objective confirmation from the market and my own belief in what was right, I persevered. I’ve learned that, to build courage, you must:

Accept fear and talk your way through it. Fear brings awareness and motivation. You can keep it from blinding you by talking yourself through it.

Build conviction through dedication to providing a real service and value. My deepest courage has always come from knowing that I’m doing something worthwhile for someone.

Draw strength from others. We’re all human-don’t be afraid to lean on others when you need to.

Sense the right timing. Know the times when courage will have a multiplying effect and inspire bravery in others, as opposed to the times when it will stand alone.

Know when to confront barriers directly and when to be indirect. In other words, know when discretion is the better part of valor.

So what happened in the end? After some harrowing moments, the strategy took hold. The voices of the opponents gradually diminished. And because of the respectful but tough way I had treated them, they actually became my biggest converts.

In short, all the courage and integrity you have today is the sum of the small acts you have performed in the past. All your future courage and integrity grow from the small acts you will perform today or tomorrow. Choose your next moment now. Courage and integrity are two things you can never have enough of.