At the recent candidate forum for our local school board, participants were asked to share a time they demonstrated courageous leadership. All stumbled over the question badly, in part because of the way the question was worded. A better question might have been, "What constitutes courageous leadership and how have you demonstrated it?"
Courageous leadership is inherently moral in nature. It is about getting people to do the right thing for the right reasons and always requires significant risk to the messenger because he or she has to challenge the status quo of a group to which he or she belongs.
Taking a brief survey of people who have demonstrated the greatest courageous leadership historically, we see this definition works equally well from Jesus, to Lincoln, to Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr. Each brought an unwanted moral message that challenged people to do what was right.
The antithesis of courageous moral leadership is Machiavellian politics. Machiavellian politics is an ends-justifies the means ethic in which power is supreme.
In candidate training classes, candidates are taught the skills of asking good questions, empathetic listening, reflection, and asking for the commitment. The process is designed to discover common ground and downplay one's differences to gain the voter's support.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this except when it is taken to an extreme and the candidate knowingly downplays significant differences to the point of being deceitful.
How do you know if you might be dealing with a wolf in sheep's clothing? It's the candidate that always seems to be telling you what you want to hear. That is why it is so important that we as voters ask the candidates the tough questions that highlight distinctions across a range of issues.
How do you know when you are dealing with a courageous leader? He or she is the person who has the guts to challenge you with something you don't want to hear, but in the end is the right thing to do.