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A leadership skill that I saw in a thief

Courage and fear co-exist and managing the balance between the two is the key to our success.

January 09, 2021 / 09:06 AM IST

Note to readers: Soch to Success is a weekly column to enhance critical thinking skills for you to achieve success. Each article is packed with insights, tools, and a roadmap to action.

Have you ever been woken up by a burglar? I have been, just recently. In the last week of December, I was away with family and friends for our winter break. We were sharing a holiday home, nestled in a residential colony and secured by a high-rise compound wall with only one main entrance to the house. It must have been around 7.45 am, I heard someone push open the door with force. I had secured the door with a latch the night before but it must have been easy for the barrel to slip when brute force was applied. The first thought that crossed my mind was of my daughter who was in the other room and I jumped to check that door when I saw a man walking up the stairs. The holiday home has a couple of rooms on the ground floor and a lovely, wooden staircase going up to the rooms on the first floor. The man paused, turned around and gave me a stare and I thought how rude this housekeeping guy was.

Almost an hour later, it dawned on us that the man was a thief, had walked up to the bedroom on the first floor and taken out laptops from one room and then stepped into the other room to pick up some more gadgets and a laptop bag. 

In one of the rooms, one person was sleeping and another was in the washroom. In the second room, two people were sleeping when their devices were swept off. Work and school from home means we travel with our computer devices. That man had a big haul of gadgets in a matter of a few minutes. The irony is, he not only saw me briefly, but he also met another guest on the first floor who asked him for a housekeeping errand as she walked out of the house for her morning stroll. 

CCTV cameras on the property recorded him walking in through the main gate, getting inside the building and coming out with a water jug following the guest only to go back in. He again stepped out but empty-handed, maybe to check on the guest’s whereabouts and then went back in. When he came out of the house the final time, he was carrying a bag full of gadgets and walked out of the main gate to disappear into a narrow lane. There was no vehicle waiting for him. He had come empty-handed and walked out with a backpack full of electronic devices. 



My memory said he wore a white shirt, which the CCTV confirmed. The other guest’s remembered his red trainers, again confirmed through CCTV footage. He wore a mask, as is expected during these times. 

I am not narrating this story to bring to your attention that uncertainties are an everyday phenomenon and that uncertainties come in various forms. I am also not going to talk about how we dealt or how one should deal with such events. 

Every time I think about the incident, it reminds me of this man’s courage. The courage to walk in broad daylight, the courage to continue on his mission after meeting two adults on the way but courage doesn't come alone. We don't know how he would have reacted if the person would have come out from the washroom while he was packing gadgets in the bag. Courage doesn't mean the absence of fear. 

In the first week of 2021, I am bringing your attention to a leadership skill that Nelson Mandela spoke about in 1994. He said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

Time magazine’s former managing editor Richard Stengel outlined Mandela’s eight leadership lessons, starting with, “Courage is not the absence of fear–it’s inspiring others to move beyond it.” Stengel wrote: In 1994, during the presidential election campaign, Mandela got on a tiny propeller plane to fly down to the killing fields of Natal and give a speech to his Zulu supporters. I agreed to meet him at the airport, where we would continue our work after his speech. When the plane was 20 minutes from landing, one of its engines failed. Some on the plane began to panic. The only thing that calmed them was looking at Mandela, who quietly read his newspaper as if he were a commuter on his morning train to the office. The airport prepared for an emergency landing, and the pilot managed to land the plane safely. When Mandela and I got in the backseat of his bulletproof BMW that would take us to the rally, he turned to me and said, "Man, I was terrified up there!"

Mandela was often afraid during his time underground, during the Rivonia trial that led to his imprisonment, during his time on Robben Island. "Of course I was afraid!" he would tell me later. It would have been irrational, he suggested, not to be. "I can't pretend that I'm brave and that I can beat the whole world." But as a leader, you cannot let people know. "You must put up a front."

And that's precisely what he learned to do: pretend and, through the act of appearing fearless, inspire others. It was a pantomime Mandela perfected on Robben Island, where there was much to fear. Prisoners who were with him said watching Mandela walk across the courtyard, upright and proud, was enough to keep them going for days. He knew that he was a model for others, and that gave him the strength to triumph over his own fear.

Often, during business decisions, leaders crumble not because they do not have the courage to take the decision but because they get crippled by the prospect of failure. 

New project decisions, a new product design, a new market exploration, a new important hire… there are many decisions that a business leader has to make during their tenure. Most decisions require logical thinking and are supported by data but there are some decisions, decisions that have a consequential impact, that require courage to move forward. Sometimes it is not the data, it is the fear of failure that holds the decision from becoming a reality. 

 Like intuition, fear is also an integral part of thinking like we face the fear of failure, fear of being judged as indecisive, etc. Fear is like a package offer with courage, buy courage, get fear free! Sometimes it is in insignificant form but sometimes it takes a larger space. This fear takes the path to safe decisions instead of bold, courageous decisions. In business decisions, multiple paths vary in degree of boldness and outcome. Some bold decisions have bigger chances of failure. Safe decisions are decisions that do not deliver spectacular outcomes but these also are not the reason for any failure or may fail only with limited damage. Leaders take safe decisions, well, to remain safe. That is why we see less change in culture, lesser innovations because staying in safe territory requires less or no courage. 

Courage overshadowed by fear for any leader becomes visible to the team. Mandela was conscious as a leader that his expression of fear will have an impact on his followers. 

It is an important leadership lesson that while courage is an individual’s experience, it is being watched. So is fear. 

 As a leader, it is important to remember the following:

a) Courage is not the absence of fear.

b) Bold decisions have chances of getting overshadowed by fear. If the decision-maker is conscious of fear, he can address it logically and not let fear overshadow bold decisions. 

c) Leaders are watched by team members. At times, it is imperative to display courage and keep fear under wraps. (22) (1)

If the man in the holiday home would have displayed any fear, maybe, one of us would have sensed misdeed. It is ironic that a burglar, in the bright morning light, in a house full of people, brought our attention to the fact – “courage is not the absence of fear”. He enacted it. It takes negative circumstances to teach us lessons, it takes a pandemic to teach us many values, it takes a thief to remind us that courage and fear co-exist and managing the balance between courage and fear is the key to our success. 

(Vishakha Singh, author of a forward-thinking course SHIFT, is a business strategist & a design thinking practitioner. She writes at, offering insights into the ever-changing business environment.) 
Vishakha SIngh
first published: Jan 9, 2021 09:06 am

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