Two Faces of Courage

In his book, Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy, then a senator, wrote about three pressures that kept his fellow senators from acting with courage. that kept his fellow senators from acting with courage. 

While Kennedy wrote about what he called “political courage,” his insights apply beyond the legislative chambers. Anyone in leadership is prone to such pressures. 

The three pressures

“The first pressure to be mentioned,” wrote Kennedy, “is a form of pressure rarely recognized by the general public, Americans want to be liked – and Senators are no exception.” The same applies to many people in positions of authority. It is so much easier to get along with people if they like you. At the same time, if the price of being liked is to forgo hard decisions, the costs can be ruinous. The role of a leader is to make hard choices. Often those choices are not between right and wrong, but rather between two rights (whom to hire or whom to promote) or two “bad” (what people to let go).

Kennedy got to the root of political expediency with his next statement about pressure. “It is thinking of the next campaign – the desire to be re-elected – that provides the second pressure on the conscientious Senator.” Politicians run for office and want to stay there. Same for executives. Their campaigns for higher office are not in public, but they are long and arduous. They involve doing what it takes to move up the proverbial ladder. They may endure hardships in the form of long hours, time away from family, and even competition from rivals. Better to keep your head down and go with the flow than decide that while good, your boss is, in reality, bad for the team.

“The third and most significant source of pressures which discourage political courage in the conscientious Senator or Congressman,” Kennedy wrote, “is the pressure of his constituency, the interest groups, the organized letter writers, the economic blocs and even the average voter.” Outside pressure is nothing new to senior executives; no business operates in a vacuum, and it should be responsive to the needs of its stakeholders. At the same time, when what’s good for business is bad for the community, or what’s good for the community is bad for business, the executives must make the tough calls.

Courage is the ability to remain resolute in the face of crisis, show bravery and persevere in adversity. Doing so with grace under pressure is the mark of leadership, an example that encourages others to follow.

Adapted from Forbes.com 5/14/2021