Valiant Leadership

November 18, 2015

By: Jennifer Evans

I usually go to yoga on Fridays. Actually I don’t really like yoga though I keep thinking I should like it and I keep trying it every few years … It’s just not my thing. Surprisingly I do like this class. The teacher is eccentric enough to keep me interested and she calls this Friday evening class Happy Hour. So for the last year I’ve been going pretty consistently.

Last week I was in the lobby of the business school and saw a poster telling me that the Armed Forces Association of Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, (RSB) was hosting an event in which five MBA students who are veterans would be sharing their experience as leaders in the military. Also not my thing. But for some reason I felt compelled to go to this, to see what it would be. So I didn’t go to my yoga class, missed happy hour, and joined a large group of mostly MBA students listening to these five veterans. It was a beautiful and remarkable thing.

Really, I had no idea of these people. Three of the men had prepared talks and spoke of their decision to join the military, of their military and leadership training and of their deployment experience as leaders. As they told their tales I was struck by their articulate descriptions and thoughtful observations. Their stories weren’t dramatic or seeking reaction. Their openness was striking and their willingness to be vulnerable as they expressed their stories was startling. I sensed confidence and stillness.

Purpose and Meaning
Professor Kim Cameron of the RSB was moderating the panel as a question was asked about PTSD, seeking help and suicide. The vets responded that it would take the stigma off were we to stop calling it a disorder. They referred to PTS. Kim offered that returning soldiers who have a sense of purpose or meaning for their lives are significantly less likely to choose suicide. For all of us a sense of purpose is energizing and empowering, some of us have a clarified purpose and some not so much. But for those veterans whose purpose was defined by their service I can imagine how returning from an intensely purpose-centered tour, to a life in which purpose feels scattered must be painful and difficult to negotiate.

I woke up this morning wondering about valor.

Valor – “courage or bravery” and “strength of mind or spirit that enables a person to encounter danger with firmness: personal bravery.”

The word valor comes from Old French value.
A question was asked about staying the positive course in a company that may not hold one’s personal values. I was impressed with the sophistication of one man’s reply. I recall him touching his heart and saying that he would “stay connected to his own values and be led from there.”

Perhaps our connection to our values also provides a kind of protection. It gives us the courage to see honestly, make aligned decisions and stay the course.

The panel was asked how they relate when they hear students express their stress. The veterans smiled at this and agreed that sometimes what is experienced as stressful in the MBA program may pale when compared with literally life-threatening experiences. Then as the others affirmed agreement the prior naval officer shared her view that while that is sometimes so, they are also empathetic with their classmate’s anxieties and stress.

Valiant– Possessing or showing courage or determination.
The stories told by these valiant leaders illustrated the courage and determination that openness requires. While not immediately life threatening, when I open to new possibilities or take positively deviant steps that challenge the rational realities of my own mind or the agreements and structures of my relationships and organizations, I often feel like I’m skirting emotional danger. I’m going to experiment with affirming my positively deviant steps as a valiant effort.

One MBA student asked for advice on becoming a strong leader. The heads of the other five panelists nodded as one emphasized the importance of what she called “self-actualization.” She explained that she referred to the necessity to know yourself, know yourself well, to know how you will be, how you would react, and how you lead.

During these two hours I witnessed in the five a sense of purpose, connection to values, empathy, openness and self-knowledge. I feel a happy satisfaction as I notice that these qualities map nicely to the Competing Values Framework. Also how they echo the reflective questions that Professor Robert E. Quinn (also of the RSB) offers us in his book Lift: The Fundamental State of Leadership.

I feel fortunate to have met these remarkable MBA students and grateful for their commitment as they develop their purpose as lifted leaders in our world. I think I’ll engage in “not my things” more often!