Not afraid to say the toughest things

To the Castle and Back: coverRecently I’ve been reading books written by, and about, the great world leaders of the last century.

In his 2007 memoir To the Castle and Back, the late Czech president Václav Havel muses on what he considered to be a paradoxical life. Quoting from his earlier work, Disturbing the Peace, he says of himself:

»  I’m plagued by self doubts…yet I appear to many…as someone who is sure of himself, with an enviable equanimity, quiet, levelheaded, constant, persistent, down-to-earth, always standing up for himself.

»  I’m a sociable person who likes being with people…and at the same time I’m happiest when alone and consequently my life is a constant escape into solitude and quiet introspection….At my core I’m shy and timid — and yet in some forums I’m notorious as a rabble-rouser who is not afraid to say the toughest things right to someone’s face.

Despite his being happiest when he’s alone (which is, of course, a defining feature of an introvert) and despite his self doubts, Havel by any reckoning belongs on that list of great leaders.

It’s well documented that introverts can be excellent leaders. For example, Lisa Petrilli has written several excellent blog articles and even a book on the topic of introverts in leadership.

Still, how can a “shy and timid” man, who struggles with self doubt, rise to greatness in leadership? Where does he get the strength to “say the toughest things right to someone’s face”?

I’m pretty sure that Havel used his times of “quiet introspection” to develop a core set of beliefs about how a government should serve its people. When the call came to lead his country, those beliefs, born of deep reflection and made unshakeable by years of political activism, lent strength and certainty — enough certainty even to overcome his self doubt.

In post-communist Czechoslovakia (and then the Czech Republic) Havel and his colleagues found themselves in a unique situation. With a broken-down governmental infrastructure, and with no ready models at hand, they had to invent a whole system of democratic government from scratch. Havel’s firm convictions came to the fore.

Perhaps it’s a stretch to compare today’s business climate with early 1990s Czechoslovakia, but there certainly are parallels. Fundamental, lasting change is the order of the day. Business leaders continually have to invent new methodologies and even new sets of values. Often they have to take stands that are unpopular. In my view, every successful leader has to start from an unshakeable core set of beliefs.

What do you think are the keys to leading in business today?

Originally published on the SDI blog, 11 December 2012

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