Senior Client Partner
5 APAC business leaders discuss courageous leadership
In a state of global permacrisis, leaders need to take risks in the face of the unknown. That takes courage – a skill that doesn’t always come naturally.
5 APAC business leaders discuss courageous leadership
Reputation, money, professional security — are you willing to put everything on the line to act with courage? In a volatile business climate, it’s tempting to “play it safe,” but doing so won’t always help you — or your organization — move forward. Our state of global permacrisis demands leaders who can boldly take risks by stepping outside their comfort zone and confidently making decisions in the face of uncertainty. And that starts with courage
Here’s the good news: Courage is not a personality trait — it’s a skill that can be practiced and developed. We asked five of our Korn Ferry leaders in the Asia-Pacific region to share how they’re cultivating this skill within themselves and their teams. Here’s what they’re doing.
Emily Szakacs, Client Partner, Leadership Development, Korn Ferry Australia, says having a courageous mindset means getting comfortable with the uncomfortable. “As a leader, you’re often required to make an unpopular decision, give a piece of difficult feedback, or find a way forward when you don’t know the answer. Having the discipline to do these, even when it doesn’t feel great, is demonstrating courageous leadership.”
If the idea of getting outside your comfort zone feels difficult, Szakacs advises starting with smaller moments. “Treat this the same way as any habit you want to make stick: start small and focus on one thing. Think about a difficult piece of feedback you’ve been holding back from someone, or a forum where you don’t speak up. Make a plan to deliver the feedback, contribute one idea or comment, and build from there.”
What if using your voice means defying cultural expectations? In male-dominated senior business circles in Japan, women are not expected to speak up. In addition, any crisis is traditionally addressed with an apology for causing trouble, a disincentive to risk-taking.
Hanako Muto, Client Partner with Korn Ferry in Japan, remembers a moment early in her career when she saw company leaders avoid addressing a serious issue —and she stayed quiet. “At that time I thought I was too junior and my comment wouldn’t make a difference, but the truth is I was too scared to move out of my comfort zone.”
Today, she believes the simple act of using her voice can be incredibly courageous–– and it has the power to open the door for others to follow. “I strive to speak my mind, test ideas, address performance issues and ask people to be accountable for their actions. When you set the example, colleagues will feel safe to speak up, communicate with honesty, share their ideas and take risks.”
Are you a more risk adverse leader? If so, consider this advice from Nishith Mohanty, a Korn Ferry Partner in India: “What may feel ‘safer’ today may be the death knell of your career in the long term.”
“When leaders get too comfortable, they play it safe,” cautions Mohanty. “Look at leaders at Blackberry, Blockbuster and Kodak — they got too comfortable being the business of today, and soon became the business of yesterday.”
Mohanty describes courage as the ability to take a bold bet – even in the face of investor pressure — and to admit when you’re wrong. “Amazon’s leadership principles include ‘having backbone' – leaders are obligated to disagree and commit,” he says. He also cites Meta’s decision to streamline its advertising business as a decision so courageous, it involved renaming the company. “Meta has realized ads are yesterday's business and is building the future business in the Metaverse.”
It’s not just fear of failure that holds many leaders back from being courageous. It’s the fact that they’ve never lost – something that defines their identity and reputation. Consequently, they prefer to only take risks that they are certain will pay off. Scott Hensarling, Senior Client Partner, Korn Ferry Singapore, calls this “playing not to lose”. “Over 15 years of assessment and coaching, the most common scenario I see isn’t an epic good versus evil choice,” says Hensarling. “It’s the moment where leaders could apply courage and make a strategic bet – or play it safe with a low-risk middle ground.”
The problem with playing it safe is that the organization may survive. But it will never thrive. “Courage is the key to generating value, and leadership needs to demonstrate it first.” Scott says.
How can you make the tough but value-aligned decisions that chart a new path forward for your whole organization? You need to be ready to lead difficult conversations, name the elephants in the room, challenge the status quo, and rearrange power structures.
Dr. Laura McHale, a Korn Ferry leadership psychologist based in Hong Kong, says this is tough work and it’s natural to feel “a little wobbly and vulnerable.” This vulnerability is scary but necessary for true change and growth. “Bringing your whole self to work is profoundly courageous. It's also inspiring because it gives others permission to do the same,” says Hensarling. “This is the single most complex time in the history of humanity. Getting the best return on courage requires strong self-awareness, as well as the ability to prioritize shared value over ‘value for self’.”
Today’s leaders are expected to transform their organizations while staying true to core principles, to advance social goals without sacrificing economic ones, and to balance employee wellness needs with productivity requirements. These are big, difficult challenges that can’t be met by avoiding conflict, staying quiet or playing it safe. They require a courageous mindset–– one of the five mindsets that form the foundation of a successful Enterprise Leader.
Ready to begin your journey towards Enterprise Leadership and cultivate a more courageous mindset? Talk to us about our Enterprise Leadership Institute.