Cowardice and Courage for Front Line Leaders

Cowardice and courage are obvious before and during battle.  In 1991, I witnessed another 1st Lieutenant back out of mission that I later volunteered for as a result of his cowardice.

In another part of the battlefield, I had a friend dismount from his tank and walk his platoon through a minefield while under enemy fire.  That act of courage earned him a Silver Star.  Those examples of cowardice and courage are easy to identify.

But, cowardice and courage in the business world are not always as obvious.  Sometimes they appear in the big moments when others are watching.  At other times they occur when no one is around to see them.

I define courage as acting without regard for perceived or actual personal risk.

When Front Line Leaders Demonstrate Cowardice or Courage

  • Cowardice:  If I allow someone I lead to ruin our culture for the rest of the team.
  • Courage:  If I coach the issue promptly and act decisively if they are unwilling to change.
  • Cowardice:  If I do not address the chronic tardiness of a high performing and tenured member of the team.
  • Courage:  If I maintain the standards for all team members no matter their tenure or job performance.
  • Cowardice: If I consistently fight change because it is risky.
  • Courage:  If I embrace and lead change realizing risk aversion is a terrible leadership strategy.
  • Cowardice:  If I allow people on my team to treat others disrespectfully.
  • Courage:  If I stop in the middle of the meeting and address a disrespectful action or comment.
  • Cowardice:  If I don’t act on a performance issue because of the hassles involved.
  • Courage:  If I begin the coaching and documentation process early despite the hassles of HR and legal paperwork requirements.
  • Cowardice: If I do not confront my boss when she is out of line or abusive towards others.
  • Courage:  If I pull my boss to the side and correct her actions even if others on the team say it is not worth it.
  • Cowardice:  If I don’t fire someone who is not meeting standards and is unwilling or unable to change.
  • Courage:  If I admit to my hiring mistake and take that person out of a job they are unwilling or unable to do adequately.
  • Cowardice:  If I do not refuse to hire someone my boss likes despite my misgivings.
  • Courage:  If I specifically lay out the reasons for my concern and hold my ground unless my boss has a more convincing and adequate reason for hiring the person.
  • Cowardice: If I complain with my peers about the decisions of my leaders without ever discussing those concerns with my leaders
  • Courage:  If I confront my leadership with my concerns and bring alternatives to them for consideration.

The Bottom Line:

Courage is a vital character trait for me as a leader whether I am in wearing combat boots or a business suit.  To be a leader of character, I must develop the courage to act no matter what the actual or perceived risks may be.

To develop my character I must first think about and study topics like courage.  Then as my thoughts remain immersed in character studies, my speech begins to reflect my thoughts.

My speech then influences my actions as I seize opportunities to act in a courageous way.  The more courageous acts I perform, the more my courageous actions become second nature or habitual.  Once I habitually act with courage, my character is that of a leader of courage.


As a leader at home or at work, what have you been avoiding because of the perceived or actual risk?  What act of courage will it take for you to move forward.

4 Responses to “Cowardice and Courage for Front Line Leaders”

  1. Will Wilson February 15, 2013 at 7:06 am #

    Perhaps it is quiet because it takes contemplation and consideration.

    It’s really not that simple and concrete.

    That post caused me to think about courage and your definition of it.

    In my mind, leadership, at one level is ensuring the success and development of your team and each member above your own success and recognition. You need to be committed to their success over your own.

    Courage is the capacity to stand up and do what you believe and know is right, no matter the risk to yourself.

    I failed in courage when I briefed the Commandant of Cadets in the 1980s that we had a serious sexual harassment and sexual abuse situation in the Corps of Cadets. At the end of the brief, he said: Whew – I was afraid it was worse than that – then told me to destroy any and every copy of the report and never let it see the light of day.”

    I was flabbergasted and tried to discuss it with him to no avail.

    I should have taken it to the Supe — but I didn’t.

    At another and earlier time in the 60s, I volunteered to take a SF Mike Force unit to one of our camps in I Corps under attack when others refused. We flew through a monsoon in 3 caribous to make the assault. It scared the crap out of me, but I knew it was the right thing to do for that SF camp and for my unit.

    Different situations – same issue.

    And – there are times when leaders just can’t go on. Read sometime about Audie Murphy’s condition that we now call PTSD.

    Leaders just turning and walking away because they can’t go on can not simply be defined as cowardice.

    My concern these days is that there is little demonstration of courage in business.

    Working with the special ops community, I know it’s there in those units – but it is simply not a concrete, black and white issue.

    • Dave Anderson February 16, 2013 at 9:23 am #

      The lack of courage in business is a big issue. I agree. When a leader puts his needs in front of those he leads, that is an issue that could be about courage. It could also be about pride/self.

      Physical courage in battle is easier to identify. Courage in business is tougher to see, and also tougher to define. That is why I gave examples of what it might look like.

      These examples mostly reflect what I have encountered.

  2. Mark Cundiff February 16, 2013 at 7:22 am #


    Great post and great list of examples. Good reminder to take the extra effort and work to do the right thing even though it may be uncomfortable for us or cause us more work in the short term. In the long-term our organizations will be more healthy and therefore more productive if we act with courage consistently.



    • Dave Anderson February 16, 2013 at 9:24 am #

      As I said above Mark, unfortunately these are issues I ran into in business. Some are pretty sad. But they are more prevalent than ever.

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