The Courage of William Wilberforce

I recently gave a talk on courageous leadership, and I used the life of William Wilberforce as an example of what it means to be a truly courageous leader—the type of person who faces adversity head-on and never wavers in his resolve. As I studied Wilberforce, I discovered a person who was both passionate about accomplishing his life’s goal and unrelenting in his quest for influencing meaningful and lasting change during a dark and difficult time in history.

Wilberforce lived in England during the height of the British slave trade in the late 1700’s and became a member of Parliament at age 21. After re-connecting with his Christian faith in his early 20’s, Wilberforce committed his life to a higher calling—the pursuit of ending the British slave trade. Although he considered leaving public service for the ministry, he ultimately decided to stay in Parliament where he could advocate for the abolition of the slave trade.

So, how did Wilberforce demonstrate courageous leadership?

1) He had the courage to get clear about his purpose and values.
Wilberforce got crystal clear about his reason for existence and what he believed. That clarity led him to change the course of his life by focusing on the ultimate goal of ending the slave trade in Britain. As a result, he gave up a life of comfort to pursue a life of significance.

 2) He had the courage to not let current circumstances dictate his future.
Wilberforce knew that his crusade to end the slave trade would be wildly unpopular, but this reality did not deter him. Even in the midst of physical beatings, assassination threats, and public slander, Wilberforce stayed focused on living out his values and fulfilling his purpose.

3) He had the courage to take decisive and intentional action.
Wilberforce did not just talk about ending the slave trade, he took direct action to end it. He used his position and influence to introduce bills in Parliament time and time again throughout the 1790’s, even though they did not pass. And although he was not seeing the results he desired, Wilberforce was disciplined enough to act with conviction and continue pursuing his goals.

4) He had the courage to persevere in the midst of adversity.
Wilberforce never gave up on his dream. He stayed the course. He put forth legislative bills. He influenced public opinion about the evils of slavery. He made the case for abolition. Finally in 1807, his 20-year labor paid off, as the House of Commons in Britain voted to the end the slave trade. Wilberforce wept at the realization of his dream coming true before his very own eyes.

William Wilberforce stands today as an enduring example of what happens when good men demonstrate courageous leadership. His efforts helped to change the course of history for mankind and made our world a better place. Yet, even after achieving his goal to end the slave trade, Wilberforce committed the rest of his life to ending the institution of slavery altogether. His commitment was not in vain. In 1833, three days before his death, all slaves in the British Empire were set free. A fitting end to a life well-lived with boldness and courage.

“One man with courage makes a majority.” –Andrew Jackson


Servant Leaders Are Courageous

I believe that in order to be a true servant leader, you must demonstrate courage in the way that you lead yourself and others. In my most recent post for Lead Like Jesus, I discuss this concept and explain why it is so essential for effective leadership in any setting.

You can read my latest post by clicking HERE. Enjoy!

Courageous Leadership Key #3: Change

Change … there’s that word. Not too many people enjoy the process of going through change. But that’s exactly what courageous leaders do—embrace change.

After confronting their current reality, they take the time to make changes that will positively impact their lives and help them achieve their goals. They understand that change is necessary in order to grow and move beyond their current circumstances.

Change often involves “clearing the clutter”—getting rid of those things that hinder personal growth. An unhealthy relationship. A bad habit. Too many commitments. Complacency. Apathy. Confronting someone.

Whatever it is, change often involves one of two things: making a challenging decision or having a difficult conversation. Neither of these sounds desirable, and that’s why they require courage.

If you are going to lead with courage, it is imperative that you learn to embrace change. I spoke about this component of courageous leadership in a recent talk. You can watch it below:

Are You Afraid?

courage“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.” – Dale Carnegie

Nothing can cripple a leader’s ability to make decisions and take action more than fear. What will people think? What happens if I make the wrong decision? What if I fail? These are the kinds of questions that can invade the leader’s mind when faced with fear. When these questions start to linger, leaders end up putting off the tough decisions and difficult conversations. As a result, they abdicate their responsibility as a leader.

Fear is a natural emotion for all of us, but how we handle fear determines whether or not we will let it influence our decisions and actions. Winston Churchill famously said, “Courage is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” Unfortunately, leaders often allow fear of failing to discourage them from taking action because they believe that playing it safe is easier and more comfortable.

If you are a leader, then you need to learn quickly (if you haven’t already) that leadership is not easy, especially if you are a person of integrity who believes in standing on principles and core values. There will come a time when you are faced with some tough decisions that will impact your organization, employees, and customers. The question is, will you take the easy way out by avoiding that tough conversation or difficult decision so that you can avoid some discomfort? If so, that’s not leadership.

Leadership requires decisiveness. It requires courage. It requires risk. It’s not always easy and comfortable. If it was, everyone would want to be a leader! But not everyone wants to be a leader, because they do not want the responsibility that comes along with it. Leaders must be willing to confront fear head-on, knowing that they will have to make some tough choices, take some risks, and have some challenging conversations.

  • How is fear you holding back today?
  • Are you putting off a decision or conversation that needs to be addressed?
  • Have you become stagnant because you will not take a leap of faith?
  • Are you afraid of what others will think if you make a certain decision?
  • Is there a dream that you are holding on to and will not share with anyone else?
  • Are you simply afraid that you will fail?

These are some important questions to ponder as you seek to grow your leadership ability. If you continue playing it safe, you will never truly have the impact that you desire unless you confront the fear that is holding you back. It’s through this process that you will become a leader that others respect and want to follow.

More Quotes on Fear:

“I have lived a long life and had many troubles, most of which never happened.” – Mark Twain

“Never let the fear of striking out get in your way.” – Babe Ruth

“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.” – Eleanor Roosevelt