4 Truths About Courage in Leadership

UPDATED: September 1, 2021
PUBLISHED: October 27, 2020

Have you ever heard the name Eddie Rickenbacker? He may be the most underrated and underreported American hero of all. 

Consider the accomplishments: As an auto racer, he set the world speed record at Daytona in 1914. In World War I, he recorded the highest number of aerial victories against the Germans. In World War II, while serving as a special advisor to the secretary of war, he survived a plane crash over the Pacific and spent 22 days floating on a raft.

Can you imagine the courage!? Rising to a challenge was never a big problem for Rickenbacker, whether it was physical, mental or economic. When he was 12, his father died and he quit school to become the family’s primary breadwinner. His eventual prowess as a fighter pilot caused the press to dub him the “American Ace of Aces.” When asked about his steeliness in combat, he admitted that he had been afraid.

“Courage is doing what you’re afraid to do,” he said. “There can be no courage unless you’re scared.”

That attitude served the Ace of Aces well after World War I. In 1933, he became the vice president of Eastern Air Transport (later Eastern Airlines). Back then all airlines existed only because they were subsidized by the government. But Rickenbacker thought they should be self-sufficient. He decided to completely change the way the company did business. Within two years he made Eastern profitable, a first in aviation history. He went on to lead Eastern successfully for 30 years before retiring at age 73. When he died 10 years later, his son William wrote, “If he had a motto, it must have been the phrase I’ve heard a thousand times: ‘I’ll fight like a wildcat!’ ”

Now that’s a leader. When you look at the life of Eddie Rickenbacker, you cannot help seeing great courage. It’s easy to observe in war heroes, but it’s also present in every great leader in business, government or the church. Whenever you see significant progress in an organization, you know that the leader made courageous decisions. 

A leadership position doesn’t give a person courage, but courage can lead him or her to a leadership position.

As you consider the tough decisions, challenges, risks and changes facing you and your organization, recognize these four truths about courage.

1. Courage begins with an inward battle.

Every test you face as a leader begins within you. The test of courage is no different. As psychotherapist Sheldon Kopp notes, “All the significant battles are waged within self.” Courage isn’t an absence of fear; it’s doing what you are afraid to do. It’s having the power to let go of the familiar and forge ahead into new territory. That was true for Rickenbacker, and it can be true for you.

2. Courage is making things right, not just smoothing them over.

Martin Luther King, Jr., declared, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Great leaders have good people skills, and they can get people to compromise and work together. But they also take a stand when needed.

Courage deals with principle, not perception. If you don’t have the ability to see when to stand up and the conviction to do it, you’ll never be an effective leader. Your dedication to potential must remain stronger than your desire to appease others.

3. Courage in a leader inspires commitment from followers.

“Courage is contagious,” Billy Graham said. “When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others are stiffened.” A show of courage by any person encourages others. But a show of courage by a leader inspires. It makes people want to follow him or her. My friend Jim Mellado explains, “Leadership is the expression of courage that compels people to do the right thing.”

4. Your life expands in proportion to your courage.

Fear limits a leader, but courage has the opposite effect. It opens doors, and that’s one of its most wonderful benefits. Perhaps that’s why British theologian John Henry Newman said, “Fear not that your life will come to an end but that it will never have a beginning.” Courage not only gives you a good beginning, but it also provides a better future.

What’s ironic is that those who don’t have the courage to take risks and those who do, experience the same amount of fear in life. The only difference is that those who don’t take chances worry about trivial things.

If you’re going to have to overcome your fear and doubts anyway, you might as well make it count.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Photo by MonkeyBusinessImages/Shutterstock.com

John C. Maxwell, an internationally respected leadership expert, speaker, and author who has sold more than 18 million books, has been named an inaugural SUCCESS Ambassador. Dr. Maxwell is the founder of EQUIP, a non-profit organization that has trained more than 5 million leaders in 126 countries worldwide. A New York Times, Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek; best-selling author, Maxwell has written three books that have sold more than a million copies.