Courage. Leaders need it.

Looking back – or the ‘rear view mirror’ approach – is considered by many to be the source of insight and learning, as much for what to do as what NOT to do.

For emerging leaders at every level, this approach can be both terrifying and exhilarating.

Leading others means to be aware of the context of one’s leadership as much as it is about one’s style. For that reason, leadership isn’t a static topic – and perhaps, is something that can’t really be ‘taught’ in the traditional sense.

However, the one constant in leadership – sometimes writ large, sometimes a footnote – is the need for courage. Not fearlessness, although that helps – but the willingness to make a decision and stick to it, steering a confident course for followers. This willingness of people to follow reflects leadership ability, but questioning a leader’s judgment is the root of leadership failure. In a communications world increasingly dependent on constant change, social opinion and groupthink for relevance, leadership can be a personally risky business.

This is why not all leadership training can be created equal and why not all leaders of the past or the present can be effective teachers for tomorrow: because leadership – and the training of it – is a moving target.

Does leadership success in, say WW2 have the same characteristics as it did in the Vietnam War? Or is successful leadership of Google the same as it is for Microsoft or even Apple? Are the skills of political leadership the same everywhere? The answer is obviously no, because strong leadership is contextual to the situation of the leader. The courage they require is commensurate with the size of the challenge they’re facing and their ability to share and communicate this with those who follow them, knowing that many will do this blindly. Will it take more courage to be a leader tomorrow than it did yesterday? Are the skills the same… or different because of context?

Shaping tomorrow’s leadership

We’re entering a management era where shared social value – between an organisation and the communities, citizens and stakeholder it serves – will shape tomorrow’s leadership. And that management era will coexist with the powerful influence of social media, global communication and near real time discussion of leadership judgement and decision making.

While navigating those treacherous waters, leaders of tomorrow’s shared value organisations will balance a heavy burden of ethical choices both personal and corporate, steering a path through citizen/consumer trust and economic benefits, around shareholder expectations versus obligations to workers and importantly, the choices of disclosure versus knowledge. Data gives tomorrow’s leaders the keys to a kingdom never seen before, but no instructions about leading the way through it. As they shape their future, emerging leaders will face an endless commentary on their decisions and judgement, more so than their intentions and outcomes. Staying the course in the face of criticism, courage in holding on to conviction is what will determine true leadership.

How to steer forward? Distilling the rear view lessons taught by failures of ethics, courage and conscience is a worthy challenge today’s leaders should consider – and through it, shape their own leadership legacies.

This blog first appeared on OpenForum.com.au.