Conviction with Courage

By Dr.Peter Cheng

This article is the fourth of a 9-part series that discusses the Who-ness and What-ness of A Real Leader who Shapes Culture and Drives Performance.


Real Leaders who have conviction with courage embrace a strong belief within ethical and moral parameters and take clear stands without compromising. These leaders engage constituents to pursue ennobling agenda that will positively impact the community.

The word “conviction” is synonymous with a firmly held belief or opinion. Having courage is having strength in the face of pain and grief, or the choice and willingness to confront agony, pain, danger, uncertainty, and intimidation.

You may have conviction about something or a subject, but may not necessarily have the courage to choose to (linking back to the earlier definition above) hold on to the belief when faced with external challenges. You can speak the truth with conviction if you are not swayed by fears and doubts. Fears of being mocked or rejected cripple you from seeing what your conviction can potentially bring about.

In my three decades of work experience, I've witnessed a fair share of organisational in-fightings and how people in organisations plotted to bring others down and out of the organisation. I saw how one General Manager literally fled from her otherwise established position into “early retirement” when an acquisition happened to the organisation she was leading.

Soon after the announcement of the complete buy-over of the stakes of the organisation, the General Manager went on urgent leave for several weeks and later announced that she was going into early retirement, to the surprise of many of her employees.

With such an abrupt exit, everyone was keen to know what the real reason was. Through the grapevine, we heard that the CEO of the acquiring organisation had an old and unsettled “score” with the fleeing General Manager. Under the leadership of the General Manager, many had witnessed her conviction and belief in driving the business for the greater good of the society, beyond the organisation’s desired profitability. It was a shame that she had to “retire” all of a sudden due to the invalid opposition that she encountered. She certainly had the conviction, but lacked the courage to face the invalid opposition.

With her visionary quality and track record in propelling the organisation to great heights as the market leader, there was much more that she could contribute to the industry for the benefits of the larger community. Her departure without a competent successor saw the decline of the organisation as it lost its core identity, strategic thrust and market share in the years that followed and fizzled out in the light of the competition.

Today, the organisation remains a pale shadow compared to its prime days. Should that General Manager have stayed on to face the politically motivated opposition, the fate of the organisation could’ve been reversed.

Undoubtedly, leaders will continue to face challenges in this increasing volatile and globalising marketplace. How can you as a leader unleash the Real Leader in you to have conviction with courage? What separates Real Leaders from leaders are the following behaviours they deliberately practise.

1. Staying firm with decisions in the presence of invalid opposition

Real Leaders embrace opposition that promotes objectivity and for the betterment of making effective decisions. However, they’re resolved to their conviction and courageously stand up to invalid oppositions to defend their well deliberated and value-based decision. They’re not intimidated by opposition that comes their way.

Did you defend your cause in the face of invalid opposition? How did it feel to have given up your conviction?

2. Ask insightful and appropriate questions to challenge others

Real Leaders are courageous enough to ask appropriate questions that shake the assumptions of others. They don't hold back their genuine intention to sharpen the decisions made for the greater good of all. The quality of their questions brings insights to others and “bring people to places they have never been before.” They raise questions that may appear confrontational but with a genuine intent to raise the “bar” to help others become better contributors to the organisation.

When was the last time you had the opportunity to ask questions that might bring insights to the meeting? Did you hesitate? If yes, what might have stopped you from speaking up? Leaders embrace courage to ask questions to challenge and stretch others to become “bigger” than they perceive themselves to be.

3. Take calculated risks in decision-making

Businesses are not spared from risks as they implement initiatives. Real Leaders are courageous in making decision and are risk takers to venture into the unknown to discover and unfold possibilities for their people and organisation.

In the words of Albert Einstein, “A ship is a safe on shore but that is not what it is built for.”

Have you been docking your ship or have you sailed into the seas of opportunities?” Take your team with you and set sail for the ocean out there to discover what the market might offer.

4. Recognise dangers and seize opportunities in times of crisis

In this crisis, many would focus on how to control the damage to the organisation. Real Leaders go beyond damage control to scan for opportunities the crisis could present and work towards leveraging them for the benefit of all.

Helen Keller once cited, “Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”

When was the last time you exposed yourself and team to “danger”? If you haven’t, you’re probably depriving them of opportunities for growth and success.

5. Challenge others with meaningful tasks

Real Leaders have purpose-driven challenges to also help their followers find meaning in work and meaning at work. They challenge their people with meaningful tasks, stretching them to engage in actions that are necessary to achieve extraordinary outcomes.

Today’s workforce is getting more talented and mobile. In this digital era, information flows freely, equipping many with knowledge and increasing their mobility to search for jobs that resonate with their passion - which can be translated into the meaning they derive from the work they do.

Chip Conley cited that when people find meaning in work and meaning at work, they experience transformation. To have people finding meaning in work is to place them in the job they are most passionate in. Real Leaders discover the passion in others and create pathways for them to be stretched and engaged in meaningful tasks.

6. Display clear conviction that is aligned to your values and beliefs

Often times, leaders encounter situations that put their values and beliefs to test. Such situations could be presented to lure leaders to derail and compromise their fundamental values and beliefs. You might’ve read about the corporate frauds and scandals around the world and how leaders compromised their values to cheat the system to achieve their goals. Real Leaders stand firm with clear conviction to live out their values and beliefs courageously without compromise.

In 2006, Sam Palmisano, then CEO of IBM, stood by his conviction to ensure that IBMers rediscover what they truly stand for, by conducting a value-jam exercise that saw more than 1000 leaders contributing to the rediscovery of IBM values in when they were at the brink of collapse. IBM found its footing again to excel and the rest was history.

Was there a time when you found yourself swaying from the truth or compromising your values under the pressure of adversity or rejection? Anchor your conviction on your values. You’ll then be a leader with strong influence when you are courageous to stand by your conviction, speaking what you believe is the truth without fear nor pretense.

Martin Luther King comes to mind as a symbol of the fight against racial discrimination. He passionately supported the civil rights movement, despite virulent opposition and discrimination in parts of America, and brought the hope of freedom to all Americans.

In the Christian context, Jesus Christ stuck to the truth of his message, despite the consequences. On many occasions, he had the opportunity to escape or change his message of salvation. Ultimately, he felt the right thing to do was to suffer outer humiliation and pain in order to leave a legacy of spiritual truth.

Nelson Mandela had the conviction and courage to fight against the unjust system of apartheid. For his political activities, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison, but he was released to lead a free South Africa.

With virtually no money, Mother Theresa devoted her life to serving the poor of Calcutta — overcoming poverty, disease and criticism. Her conviction and courage saw her mission expand to support the poor and disadvantaged around the world.

As I conclude, I’d like to encourage you to ask yourself these questions: What’s your conviction as a leader? How are you following and living out your conviction? What oppositions are you facing? Is your conviction backed by the needed courage to see you through the challenges ahead?

You can  find out more about PACE's Real Leadership solutions here.

In the next article of the series, I’ll discuss the Real Leadership essential of Credibility. You can read the previous articles of the 9-part series here:

  1. What Does It Take to Be a Real Leader?
  2. What Does it Mean to Be Competent?
  3. The Formation of Character

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