Saturday, August 7, 2010

10 Tips for Developing Your Leadership “Cojones”

Note from Dan: while I normally write a PG blog, this post is rated PG13, parental discretion is advised.

Sarah Palin recently said on Fox News Sunday that President Obama doesn't have "the cojones" to effectively address the issue of illegal immigration.

Yikes, when’s the last time you heard a political leader accused of that? Actually, according to my extensive 10 minutes worth of Google research, not since then-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright famously said in 1996 that Cuba's shooting down of planes flown by anti-Castro exiles was "not cojones" but "cowardice."

So what does it mean to “not have the cojones” as a leader, and does it really matter? And at the risk of being crude, what exactly are “cojones”?

Yes, Great Leadership will be the first to tackle these tough questions.

We’ll start with a definition. According to Wikipedia, “Cojones is a vulgar Spanish word for testicles, denoting courage. In English, as a loanword, it similarly means courage or brazenness.”

So we’re talking about leadership courage here. And in the context of leadership courage, it’s a gender neutral thing.

Does courage matter? According to most of the research on leadership effectiveness I’ve seen, courage ranks pretty high as an important leadership characteristic.

We all know this, right? We sure know it when we don’t see it. Who wants to work for a manager that:

 Won’t take tough stands with others

 Doesn’t step up to the issues

 Is intimidated by others in power

 Avoids conflict

 Won’t look out for the best interests of the team

 Can’t make a tough decision

In other words, a wimp.

As a leader, I would hate to be called out as a wimp. Ouch. However, if it happens to you, there is hope. Like any valid leadership characteristic, there is no “courage gene”. Someone does not emerge from the womb courageous – it’s something that can be learned and developed.

How? Here are 10 tips for managers (or anyone) that will help grow some leadership cojones (courage):

1. Get clear on what’s important.
Identify your core values, principles, or “leadership rules”. Let these be your guiding light. Establish a vision of who you want to be as a leader, and then begin to live up to that vision.

2. Learn how to deal with conflict.
Read books or take courses in conflict management, negotiations, influence, assertiveness, giving feedback, and/or crucial conversations. Then practice until it hurts.

3. Develop your leadership “presence”.
I’ve written posts on how to do this. Presence is more than an inner confidence – it’s a commanding physical presence as well. Like it or not, as a leader, image matters. People will size you up in less than 30 seconds, so yes, that initial greeting and handshake (avoid the "dead fish") really do matter.

4. Ask yourself: “what’s the worst thing that could happen”?
The next time you feel the urge to challenge someone in power or take an unpopular stand, ask yourself this question: “What’s the worst thing that could happen”? Do you really think you’re going to get fired? Yelled at? Disgraced for life? Yes, there’s a slight chance that any of those things could happen, but in reality, it’s not very likely. We make up all kind of horror stories in our heads that prevent us from saying or doing what’s right. Next time, take the advice from Tom Peters, and just say “what the hell”.

5. Trial by fire.
Volunteer for a high stakes, tough assignment that will require you to make tough calls and deal with conflict. There’s no better way to learn than by earning your scars through experience. Step up and be the person who has to cut the budget, close an office, handle the next layoff, or deliver the bad news.

6. Learn from role models.
Identify people in your company whose courage you admire. Talk to them and learn how they act on their convictions. Read a biography of a courageous leader (Churchill, Lincoln, Ghandi).

7. Be a fixer, not a victim.
When you see a problem that you think “someone” should address, ask yourself if you could be doing something about it. It’s easy to complain or point fingers – it takes courage to be a part of the solution.

8. Avoid wimpy words and language.
Here’s an example of a meeting behavior that drives me nuts. Someone meekly half raises their hand and says “can I ask a question”? When you do that, you might as well hang a wimp sign around your neck. You were invited to the meeting for a reason – to contribute.

9. Remember that leadership is not a popularity contest.
Leaders don’t manage by polls or surveys and strive to make everyone happy. In fact, if you haven’t ticked anyone off in the last year, you might be giving in too much instead of sticking to your convictions (see #1).

10. Hold yourself and others accountable.
High performers want and expect to be held accountable by their leaders. High performing teams will even hold each other accountable. When you establish and commit to a standard or expectation, courageous leaders hold themselves and others accountable to those expectations.


Mary Jo Asmus said...

Hi Dan,

I love this post. May I be so courageous as to add something? If courage is lacking, I would ask "Who can help me?". Often we're timid alone but courageous with the support of others.

Dan McCarthy said...

Mary Jo -
I love your suggestion! Thanks.

working girl said...

One thing I've noticed about successful leaders - note I'm not saying they're great leaders, although some of them are, but they manage to stay in leadership positions through any number of crises - is that they have broad shoulders. When bad stuff goes down and tempers fly, they wait it out. Sometimes they take action, but it is their waiting for things to blow over that is masterful.

Scott Eblin said...

Hi Dan -

If I may add a rule 11, it would be Practice. When you have to deliver a tough message it's a good idea to rehearse a bit to get comfortable with the content, the tone, the breathing, the body language, etc. Usually makes the actual event go a little better.

By the way, that Sarah Palin certainly has a way with words doesn't she?

Anna said...

Laurie Ruettimann, courageous female leader and HR professional, has the cojones to grab life by the balls, ahem, horns. #cojonesinspiration

davidburkus said...

I can't tell you how many experiences I've gotten to enjoy using #4.

Dan McCarthy said...

working girl -
Interesting, I never thought of it that way, but I can think of examples now. thanks.

Dan McCarthy said...

Scott -
OK, #11 it is! Thanks for the tip.
Yes, thanks to her, I got to use the word "cojones" in a blog post.

Dan McCarthy said...

David -
Right, it can be liberating. thanks!

Dan McCarthy said...

Anna -
yes, I'm a big Ruettimann fan! Don't alway agree with her, but I love her style.

ClosewithKathi said...

Great Post, Dan. Point #8 is especially important for women to heed since we spend so much energy learning the opposite in order to communicate with children. I remember learning about "strong" vs "weak" words in speech class and immediately revised my vocabulary. Words matter.

Dan McCarthy said...

Kathi -
Thanks. I used to work with an OD pro who had expertise in gender communications and learned a lot from her. Very eye opening.
BTW, I checked out your blog - I just had to find out what a wingspouse was. Now I know.

Karen F. said...

Dan, this is a great list already by itself. :-) I think too that leaders should know how to delegate...I've seen people try to do everything themselves, not trusting their team (which they supposedly recruited and trained themselves, mind you) to do what they were hired to do. Knowing when to let go makes a good leader great.

Karen, The Resume Chick (on Google or Twitter for questions, comments or violent reactions)

Dan McCarthy said...

Karen -
Thanks, Karen the Resume Chick.

Katie Reynolds said...

Thanks Dan. You’re right. Employees want leaders who are willing to listen but then make their own firm decisions. A leader has to be able to make strategic decisions - quick enough so they don’t miss opportunities or make strategic mistakes, but not so quickly that they don’t review all possible consequences. Leaders walk a very fine line. You mentioned "Crucial Conversations," and I’d agree that’s one of the best business books to coach leaders in bravery in their communications with all people, from employees to family and friends.

Katie Reynolds

Dan McCarthy said...

Katie -
Thanks. Good points on strategic decision making.

Phil said...

You make some valid points, excellent article. I have seen many of these rules used by some individuals of management at my work place and many of these rules by passed as well. The ones that live by these rules tend to be more successful. If I may add another rule myself, rule number 11; Lead by example, practice what you preach. It takes courage to be able to put forth and show others what you stand by knowing the fine lines that you walk on as a leader, people are constantly watching your every move to see if you stand behind what you "preach."