Leadership, Courage & The Small “t” truth

Group of Multiethnic Business People in Meeting

In a prior posting my business partner, Debra Bowles, expressed the courage it took to speak her small “t”  truth in front of her executive peers in response to a CEO’s inquiry.  I am often struck by the use of the word courage in business today and curious if the word is used in a way that encourages leadership in a positive manner or whether it is so loaded with mis-meaning that the actual experience of courage is impaired.

One reason that courage may not convey a felt sense is the dictionary’s definition reflects idealized social attributes or affected social attributes instead of human ones. Words such as pluck, nerve, valor, daring, and guts… are nice ideals, but all of us know from experience, that when courage is called for it is much more impactful and transcendent than the dictionary definitions.

So what gives?  When is leadership courageous and when is it not?

I believe leadership is courageous when it acknowledges the small “t” truths of the individual leader.  Small truths are vulnerable and personal to the speaker–these truths invite criticism, skepticism, judgment, and riskiest of all, true dialogue.

Think about the larger “T” truths: these are delivered with certainty and force–with no other way of looking at things.  These declarative Truths impel action, simply because they are so certain and authoritative. “Forcefully stated and plausibly maintained” is how one leader told me that important directives must be given.

I know in some contexts immediate decisive action is required.  Sports leadership is an example where, in the midst of a game the situation cries for decisive action.  Typically there is one person designated to choose a path of action and declares it with verve –“follow me!”

Yet most moments of Leadership are not in the final minutes of a championship game. Most leadership is subtle, contoured and takes place in multiple contexts over time.  There could be many possible good decisions all dependent on context:  How much data is enough? Do we have the talent to do this?  Is it cost effective?  What is our competition doing?   Are we still on track or do we need to recalibrate?  I’m sure there are many more.

It is a courageous leader who is able to discern what is of greatest value, often in ambiguous circumstances. The courageous leader leads not simply from the power of intellect, force of statement, or position, but by identifying the ideals that inspire others to follow.  Inspiration of this sort comes from the heart and it always feels risky to put ones heart into a business conversation.  Yet the best leaders in business do it over and over as they remind us of why our work is important and how we are making a difference in the world.  These leaders bring out the best in their teams with invitations to participate fully, imagine the best, listen deeply, and inspire others to contribute something of value to the world.

This is genuine courageous leadership – “truth” – with a small ‘t’.


Posted by:   Neil Olson – Managing Principal