Leadership & Character – Courage

Courage sign with road background

This blog is part of a series focusing on the attributes that lead to a positive assessment of a leader’s character.  Each of the positive character attributes contribute in their own way to the ability of the leader to make good, character-based decisions with respect to the actions they take as a leader.  The focus for this blog is on courage.

Courage doesn’t always have to involve a dangerous situation

When we talk about courage, people often think about someone who has taken action in a dangerous situation. Although these kinds of situations certainly demonstrate courage, in the context of leadership, it is important to broaden the definition. In addition to the idea of overcoming fear or a sense of danger, courage is the mental and moral strength to endeavour, persevere, and withstand difficulty or potential loss.  Courage is demonstrated by a person’s response to a particular circumstance.  Here’s the challenge.  On one hand, it is not that hard to muster the courage to respond when faced with a life-threatening situation.  If you do nothing, there will be a terrible consequence.  On the other hand, it may be much more difficult to show courage in a situation where doing what is right may cause difficulty (in the short run) versus choosing to avoid doing what is right which will result in escaping difficulty or receiving a personal gain.

Courage in leadership means having the courage to endure the consequences – good or bad – of doing the right thing

Courage in leadership is closely linked to honesty and integrity because in order for a leader to be able to act with honesty and integrity, they must have the courage to endure the consequences – good or bad – of doing the right thing.

Ling’s true courage in the story of The Emperor’s Seed

There is a famous story called “The Emperor’s Seed” that emphasizes the importance of having the courage to act with integrity. I won’t recount the full version of the story here – just the highlights. A Chinese Emperor had no children and needed to choose a successor, so he had thousands of children from his kingdom visit his palace so that he could choose amongst them.

Each child was given a seed that they were to plant in a pot and tend for one year after which they would return and show the result of their efforts. One of the children named Ling, planted the seed he was given and dutifully watered the pot every day but nothing happened. The other children all had impressive-looking plants but Ling did not have anything to show for his efforts. His mother had told him that even though his plant was barren he needed to return to the Emperor and show him what had happened no matter what the consequences.

When the year had ended, all of the children returned to the Emperor’s Palace with their pots in hand. The Emperor inspected all the pots viewing all kinds of impressive looking flowers, trees and shrubs. When he came to Ling, he asked what happened.  “I watered the pot every day but nothing ever grew” Ling explained nervously. The Emperor moved on to assess the remaining pots.  When the Emperor finished his assessment, he said “Clearly, some of you desperately want to be Emperor and would do anything to make that happen, but there is one boy that I would like to point out as he has come to me with nothing.  Ling, come here please.”

Ling approach the Emperor holding his barren pot.  Then the Emperor held up the pot for all to see and exclaimed, “A year ago, I gave you all a seed.  I told you to go away, plant the seed and return with your plant.  The seeds that I gave you all were boiled until they were no longer viable and wouldn’t grow, but I see before me thousands of plants and only one barren pot.  Integrity and courage are more important values for leadership than proud displays, so Ling here will be my heir.”

The story of Ling and the Emperor is a powerful message. However, in addition to the story of the Emperor’s Seed I think it is important to reflect on stories of courage and character that are real and may have the elements of the kind of dilemma we all can face.  Nicky Gumbel is a writer and speaker.  He has been credited with telling the following story. “I once knew a godly man nicknamed ‘Gibbo’ who, when he was young, worked as a clerk at Selfridges, the London department store. One day, when the owner Gordon Selfridge was there, the telephone rang and Gibbo answered it. The caller asked to speak to Gordon Selfridge. Gibbo passed on the message and Selfridge replied, ‘Tell him I’m out.’ Gibbo held out the receiver to him and said, ‘You tell him you’re out.’ Gordon Selfridge took the call, but was furious with him. Gibbo said to him afterwards, ‘If I can lie for you, I can lie to you.’ From that moment onwards Gordon Selfridge had the highest regard for and trust in Gibbo.”

The question I ask myself every time I think of this story is “would I have acted the same way Gibbo did”?  Although many people have told me that Gibbo’s actions are impractical, I really have to admire the demonstration of courage to follow his convictions.  In the end, his courage strengthened the relationship and built a foundation of trust.

Having courage enables a leader to act with honesty and integrity and is an important part of achieving a high CQ (Character Quotient).  Leadership assessment and leadership training must take into consideration the integration of positive character traits such as courage in order to help individuals and organizations to develop a Personal Leadership Effectiveness Culture that reinforces a strong CQ (Character Quotient) within the organizational culture.

As always, I welcome your feedback. You can connect with me via email or telephone or leave a comment right here on the site.

Until next time,


David Town, CHRL, is a facilitator and coach of leadership and management principles that enable individuals and organizations to build greater leadership competency, resulting in higher performance and higher employee engagement. David has a particular focus on effectively managing conversations involving confrontation or conflict. As well, he provides insights and assessment strategies for integrating character competencies into leadership skills resulting in increased trust and reduced risk for leaders. David is President of Your Leadership Matters Inc.

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