One of the hardest things for a leader is having the courage to be different and take a stand. Personally, I was always a very courageous employee. Then I became a manager. Suddenly, my courage level seemed insufficient. I became more aware and nervous about taking a stand. Simply, I felt the full weight of accountability and feared that I would be fired. Then I had a defining career moment that helped me remember and embrace my responsibility as a leader to be courageous.
I was part of a leadership team working on a very large scale software development project. A disagreement occurred between myself and a peer over whether a a request should be submitted as a change request. My peer’s position was very understandable: If we give them this change, they will keep asking and expecting more without change requests. I didn’t necessarily disagree with his point. My stance was to protect the collaboration and shared ownership that we had created:
- The client was sitting in our conference room with our team. They were updating documents, testing, etc together. There was no conversations about “please update your test script” or “tell us when it’s ready to test again after you make this document update”. I considered this work that the client was helping us do. As such, we should provide value back to them too.
- I felt confident that they understood the difference between a small request and a large one that would warrant a change request.
- Because they were collaborating with us in the entire process, they also understood what changes meant for re-testing, etc. They were choosing changes based on high value only.
Our disagreement was rightfully escalated. What I didn’t expect was the severity of the escalation response. Suddenly, I found myself on a conference call with 6 out of 7 VPs of the company and my peer. I don’t remember everything that was said. I think I was in shock and fear for the first several minutes of the call. I do remember having the feeling that this was a call to tell me to do the change request (which probably wasn’t true – but it’s how I felt). I found myself at a cross-road. Defend the unique collaboration environment we had created or proceed with status quo given past experiences from other projects. I decided to defend. Now defend is the wrong word that I would use these days but in that moment – I felt defensive. So things got heated on the call including me indicating that I believed in my decision so much that I would risk my job. To the company’s leadership’s credit, the call was ended and later resolved with just the reporting VP and the two of us. Yes, the decision was no change request. Yes, I believe that it was an absolutely critical moment in the project’s values to choose customer collaboration over contracts. Yes, I believe that things might have worked out just fine too if a change request had been delivered. No, I’m not telling you acts of courage are always being willing to walk away from your job. No, I’m not saying there are never ramifications to taking a stand.
What’s really important form this experience is that I had the courage to stand different from popular opinion/experience. Being the lone voice for change is not an easy place to be – that doesn’t change in leadership. I don’t care who you are – having 6 VPs calling you is not enjoyable experience. I’m not proud of how I took my stance but I am proud that I did. I believe after this moment, the company leadership fully learned exactly how passionate/invested/capable I was to make these decisions. My relationship with my peer was even stronger afterwards.
To this day, I still have to work on my courageous response. The passionate emotional side of me sometimes gets the best of me. But even in my not so best moments, true leaders-peers-teams value and respect courage.
How can you be more courageous as a leader?