At our annual sales management conference last month, Michael Riggs (American Family’s fantastic sales director from Georgia) asked my opinion on a simple question: “In one word, what’s the most important leadership trait?”

I didn’t hesitate with my response, but I must admit … a number of things flashed through my mind! Things like:

The book Leadership by Rudolph Giuliani, and in particular chapter four titled “Everyone’s Accountable, All of the Time.” I had the chance to have dinner with Mayor Giuliani a few years ago, and I talked with him about chapter four and his ideas around accountability. Of all the leadership books I’ve read and the chapters I’ve studied, this one is tremendous. And it’s had a tremendous impact on me. Accountability.

The book The Powell Principles by Colin Powell, and his principle to “Trust those in the trenches.” Again, I had the great honor of dining with General Powell on the fantail of the USS Missouri a few years back. I was struck by his genuineness, authenticity and humility, as well as his love of those who are in the trenches. The ones who get things done, day in and day out. Trust.

The mentors and coaches I’ve had in my life. People like my father and father-in-law, who preached hard work and sacrifice. Like former American Family Insurance Chief Executive Officer Dave Anderson and former Senior Vice President Joe Tisserand, who believed in our company and were inspirational and wise and helped me to shape my beliefs through their day-to-day actions. Inspirational. Wise.

But my quick, one-word answer to Michael was … Courage.

Now, by courage I don’t mean recklessness, or taking excessive risks, or displaying unusually abrasive behavior. Instead, in my view, courage is: Standing up, speaking up, listening and acting with passion.

Here’s what I mean:

Standing up for the customer. The best way to instill courage is to create a rallying cry that empowers everyone. My dad was a longtime insurance agent, and he taught me the importance of putting his customers – our customers – first. We measure customer satisfaction by retention and overall satisfaction. It’s what we’re all about.

Standing up for yourself. Another mentor of mine, former American Family Insurance Executive Vice President Darnell Moore, used to always say, “Find your voice. Be heard.” You’re on the team, you have unique perspectives and your opinion matters. Speak up! Not every idea or every concern you share will be acted on. But speaking up can help us correct – or avoid – poor decisions or poor execution.

Standing up for others. Great leaders listen to others. They help create a culture of collaboration, where everyone’s opinion matters. And they adjust their opinions and actions with the valued input they receive from others. Listen to feedback from others and encourage others to share it often and without fear.

Having passion, and acting on it! I love to see and hear from employees who are passionate about serving our customers, supporting our agents and growing our company. I have found that when you have passion, courage comes easier. But it’s not enough to have passion. You need to act in a way that creates momentum in the organization and that helps drive business results.

Do we need more courage in business today? You bet we do. They could learn a thing or two from my mentors, from Gen. Powell and Mayor Giuliani – and from my colleague Peter Gunder, who often talks about being “respectfully courageous.” No matter your level in the organization, disrespect for one another is bad – for each other and for our business.  Welcome new ideas, passionate pitches and dissenting opinions, and this can certainly be done in a respectful manner.

I believe YOU make your own culture. YOU get to decide how to move forward and succeed – now and in the future. If an element of your culture holds you back, have the courage to stand up for the customer, yourself, for others … and ACT on your beliefs.

You own your culture, as long as courage is exhibited by those inside and outside of leadership at your organization.

What inspiring interactions have you had with courageous leaders? Or maybe you have a favorite leadership book or quote? Share your experiences in the comments below. Or tweet me @AmFamJack