It was hard to argue with John McCain's stirring call: "Courage," he wrote in an essay that anchored our September 2004 issue, "is that rare moment of unity between conscience, fear, and action, when something deep within us strikes the flint of love, of honor, of duty, to make the spark that fires our resolve. Courage is the highest quality of life attainable by human beings. It's the moment . . . when we are our complete, best self, when we know with an almost metaphysical certainty that we are right."
But it was one thing to concur with the estimable senator from Arizona, to congratulate him on words well spoken and ourselves on, you know, getting it—and another to actually rise to the challenge. Our courage issue arrived at a moment when the business world was, as we saw it, singularly short of the stuff. The roaring, togas-and-vodka-in-Sardinia boom had yielded to the Enron/MCI/HealthSouth/ImClone/Adelphia/ (your favorite corporate comeuppance here) purging, which by last year had given way in turn to a time more somber and less interesting and seemingly not very courageous at all.
The whole mess forced us to question some quintessentially American beliefs about work and success. Throughout our history, after all, we had thrived in business by embracing big ideas, by taking chances, and by being tougher than the next guy. We saw this sort of courage as nothing less than a source of national competitive advantage—a driver of innovation, a path to profit. And now, suddenly, courage was . . . wrong?
It wasn't, of course. But it was decidedly out of fashion. Perhaps after so many years of confusing courage with hubris, we weren't confident any more in our ability to know the real article when we saw it. Even today, it's not clear that courage has much value in the marketplace. Caution and conservatism still dictate what most businesses do and also the way we judge them. Because ultimately, courage is risky. Courage raises the stakes—and, too, the possibility of failure. Courage doesn't guarantee a 10% return.
Take as examples some of our 10 "Profiles in Courage" that appeared in that issue. We praised Ed Breen for cleaning up the mess at Tyco International—firing staff, replacing directors, and raising new funds. All fine, but since Tyco lowered its guidance for earnings in May, its shares have dropped 18%. Ditto for Daniel Lynch, CEO of ImClone Systems, beset by the FDA's snub of a big new cancer drug, Erbitux, in 2001, and then by the conviction of founder Sam Waksal on insider-trading charges. Lynch, we noted, had led a stark turnaround, bringing ImClone to profitability. But when sales growth for Erbitux, since approved, hit the wall, so did its stock, which is off 40% in a year.
Then there are Ann Bancroft and Liv Arnesen, whom we hailed not just for becoming the first women to cross Antarctica on foot but for being brave enough to abandon their ultimate goal when the onset of winter threatened the safety of their team. In March, the two started another journey, this one a 1,240-mile voyage across the Arctic Ocean. But after 20 days, this trip, too, was scratched—because of a bizarre business conflict involving the team's logistics company.
Which is to say, courage isn't everything. But it remains, we believe, the most important thing—in business and in the daily happenings of humankind. It is something permanent that cannot be captured by market vagaries or short-term metrics of performance. For surely, ImClone will keep trying to solve the riddles of cancer. Breen won't back off his mission to resuscitate Tyco. And Arnesen and Bancroft are driven by forces most of us can't comprehend to keep exploring.
Which is to say, they will lead.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.