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
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.