When Anna Nimiriano goes to work in the morning at the Juba Monitor newspaper in South Sudan, she may not have to worry about getting fired. She’s the editor-in-chief. But she does have to worry about being jailed or even killed. The authoritarian government frequently dislikes what she publishes. At least seven journalists have been murdered in South Sudan since its civil war began in 2013, and President Salva Kiir has explicitly threatened to kill more. The One Free Press Coalition of major news organizations says Nimiriano “lives under constant threat.” Yet she carries on.
Nimiriano is No. 8 on our new list of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders, an example of astounding courage. Not many of our other honorees risk their lives, but it’s striking how courage is a theme running powerfully through this year’s list. Whether in business, government, education, sports, or NGOs, these leaders take action before others do, leading from out front, where the risk is often dire and their own future least certain. Everyone has something to lose, and many on our list risk possessions that most people value highly: reputation, career, fortune, esteem.
Consider Lloyds Banking Group CEO António Horta-Osório, who has openly acknowledged his struggle with mental health. Such an admission was previously inconceivable for a high-profile CEO, so he couldn’t know what would happen. Turns out it has brought him praise rather than scorn and has helped lift a stigma in an industry notorious for driving workers up to and beyond their limits.
Great leaders never know for sure if their plans will work, but they plunge ahead anyway. That’s why we recognize sheer audacity, well intended, even if the results aren’t known and even if the plans aren’t universally applauded. CEO Tim Cook is steering Apple, a giant worth over $900 billion, away from heavy reliance on slowing iPhone sales and toward a business model based on subscription revenue. Many industry experts are skeptical. All we know for sure is he had to act, he’s working at gigantic scale, and he isn’t playing it safe.
An inescapable question: How do great leaders find such courage while most people don’t? Research points to a personality style called “hardiness,” identified among business executives by psychologist Suzanne C. Kobasa decades ago and validated many times among the broader population since then. Hardy individuals don’t see the world as threatening or see themselves as powerless against large events; on the contrary, they think change is normal, the world is fascinating, they can influence events, and it’s all an opportunity for personal growth. In studies of fourth-year West Point cadets, Col. Paul T. Bartone of National Defense University found that hardiness was by far the best predictor of which cadets, male and female, would earn the highest leadership ratings.
Decades of research show that hardy individuals just don’t feel stress the way most people do. So when CEO Satya Nadella makes an epic gamble like staking Microsoft’s future on cloud computing, or Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay bets his career on a new style of offense, they’re able to do it in part because they’re simply less afraid. It gets better: Research also suggests that these leaders, through their priorities, advice, and personal example, can impart their way of seeing the world to those they lead.
Reading about these 50 extremely hardy people will improve your day and perhaps do much more. In an increasingly angry world, they’ll give you hope. You’ll be surprised by their ingenuity in devising ways to do good. Above all, when you find yourself reluctant to dare greatly, let them inspire you with their titanium-strength courage. —Geoff Colvin
Head writers: Erika Fry and Matt Heimer
Writers: Eamon Barrett, Kristen Bellstrom, Jonathan Chew, Geoff Colvin, Scott DeCarlo, Ryan DeRousseau, Emma Hinchliffe, Aric Jenkins, Carson Kessler, Beth Kowitt, Adam Lashinsky, Clifton Leaf, Michal Lev-Ram, Polina Marinova, McKenna Moore, Sy Mukherjee, Alan Murray, Aaron Pressman, J.P. Pullen, Jonathan Vanian, and Claire Zillman.
This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Fortune.