Leading a Company Takes Courage

The word courage comes from the Latin and Middle English roots for heart. In other words, courage is to have and show heart. We most often think of courage in terms of facing physical harm. But there are many threats and challenges in business that have little to do with physical harm, and dealing with them in a courageous manner is one way that skilled leaders demonstrate their personal integrity. In fact, courage is required in all leadership domains and capacities. Here are some challenges that ask for courage in everyday business situations:

Some organizations simply have a hard time telling the truth, either to each other or to partner organizations. I often see this in performance reviews. How often are employees passed from department to department without getting direct feedback on substandard performance?

Emotional courage is required to have an uncomfortable conversation even if it is in service to the individual and the organization. In the absence of sufficient courage to have a direct, even unpleasant conversation, an organization can sink under the weight of underperforming employees and create unacceptable exposure to lawsuits when termination is required. Perhaps most damaging is that this form of cowardice is sustained by wearing the label of being nice.

Adversarial relationships fester and bleed profits in the form of lost productivity in an environment where people cannot speak courageously about difficult subjects. One organization I know simply adopted the habit of starting difficult interactions by saying, “I need to have a courageous conversation with you.” The phrase became a code that incorporated the permission, trust and even humor needed for frank speaking without judgment or blame. And that company has tripled in size over the past two years.

Then there is the courage to support new and even radical ideas. It asks a lot for an executive to invest his or her credibility, not to mention resources, in a big vision. Yet without the courage to dream — and to stand by the vision in the absence of proof of its possibility — there is little likelihood that a company will grow or change. Orville Wright demonstrated the power of his visionary courage when, after a failed experiment, he wrote in his personal journal, “I do not know if heavier than air flight is possible. But, I choose to live my life dedicated to the idea that it is.” In short, his courage outweighed the constant resistance and even failure that he and his brother experienced.

Perhaps most difficult is the courage to lead responsibly in the face of extreme pressure for short-term results and ever-shrinking resources to create them. Organizations spend roughly $300 billion per year on change projects. Roughly 75 percent are deemed failures. For many, the seeds of failure are sown when fear, doubt, greed and the sponsor’s need to look tough outweigh the courage of responsible leadership. Executives often cut corners, lower budgets and arbitrarily move deadlines, putting the outcomes at risk. I am not talking here about responsible frugality. Think instead of the Dilber-tesque need to make decisions in a way that looks good today, even if it puts successful outcomes at risk.

Giving in to a machismo culture, these leaders are in most cases wasting the company’s resources. Perhaps even more damaging is the opportunity cost of what the project might bring to the company when suc-cessfully completed. When budgets are tight and time is short, it takes heart to either not start a badly ne-eded change or to fund it fully and protect it until it is successful. Yet every day we see the evidence of companies who respond to near-term shortfalls in profit by sending staff out the door and raising productivity goals at the same time.

Courageous leadership requires the rigor to face the difficult, uncomfortable and even frightening directly and with integrity.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, August 28, 2006.