What Is Courage?
The very word comes from the heart. Coeur is the French word for heart. It’s important to remember that this isn’t stuff that comes from the brain; it also comes from the gut. You don’t work through a set of decision-tree steps to get to it.
Howard Schultz provides a good example. Recently, he wanted to move Starbucks into a particular international market. He was discouraged by all sorts of consulting studies and analysis, all the advice he could muster. He called me. Without telling me any details, he said, “I have something I want to do, but for the first time almost all of my direct reports are against the decision. What do I do?” I said, “Well, how far have you gotten on your instincts, your gut, your heart?” I could hear him smiling on the phone. So I said, “Why don’t you just follow your heart?” Which is another way of making a brave decision.
However, I did counsel him to spend at least a couple of hours with his direct reports getting out all of their concerns. “Listen to them,” I said. “You may change your mind. But if you don’t, then tell them, ‘Look, this is what I think is right, I want your support, and let’s do it.’ ” That’s what happened.
Schultz had spent over half a million dollars on consultants telling him not to go. But courage is giving people a direction that’s unusual and then getting people to enroll and mobilize behind that decision. He listened to all the concerns. But he went on his heart.
What we label courage is a strong emotional commitment — and the key word is emotional — to some ideas. Those ideas could be called a vision for where we’re trying to drive the enterprise, they could be called values for what we think is important in life, they could be called principles of what is right and wrong. When people don’t just have an intellectual sense that these are logically good, but are deeply committed to them, they’re developing courage. When you run up against barriers that keep you from those ideals, the stronger your commitment, the more likely you are to take action consistent with those ideals. Even if it’s against your short-term best interests. And other people will look at that and say, “Wow, that’s courageous.”
The bigger the context, the greater the barriers, the more the snake pits — pick your own overused metaphor — the more there will be times for courageous acts. And the people who go down in history as great leaders always meet these tests.
Distinguished professor of business, USC
Professor, Columbia Business School
Professor, Harvard Business School
Codirector, Research Center for Leadership in Action, NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service
Associate dean and professor, Yale School of Management
Director, Global Leadership Program, University of Michigan Business School
Director, Center for Leadership and Change Management, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania
How do you decide what’s bold and daring versus just damn stupid and reckless?
There’s no book on that. Was launching D-Day on June 6 the right idea? Well, the weather was too bad on the 5th, but it wasn’t great on the 6th either. How would one know if it’s courageous or dumb until the dust settles?
There’s no such thing as a safe risk. That’s an oxymoron. All courage is a risk. None of it is safe. The only way to decide is through the shining ether of time.
Can bravery be learned? Or is it genetic?
How much leadership do you think is out there that’s good? What percent of entrepreneurs and business folks could meet the test of being a good leader? How about half of 1%? This could be because of genetics, but I doubt it. It has to do with the experiences people have gone through and what they’ve been told and what they’ve been rewarded for. If you’re a middle manager in some company, how often do you get the vibration that the people above you really want you to provide great leadership to your team?
And it flips the other way, too. Everyone is overworked. People aren’t looking for new challenges, so it’s easy to try to brush leadership off. If you talk to enough people, most of them will say, “Leadership isn’t my job. It [belongs to] the guy above me or the guy above him.”
We are where we’ve been. You don’t suddenly burst out at age 50 speaking Mandarin if you haven’t been living in a Mandarin world or taking Mandarin classes. If we don’t think leadership is our job, if no one desperately wants leadership from us, and if society in general isn’t beating on us about that, then what happens? We don’t do much, leadership is not supported, and surprise, surprise, we don’t develop much as leaders.
Can you prepare to be courageous?
The textbook example is when Eugene Kranz said, “Failure is not an option” when bringing home Apollo 13. He was confident because he had enough experience. He knew the staffing down there in Houston; he knew all the moving parts. And by looking at his resources and relying on his prior mission directorships, he could draw the concrete assessment that the mission would successfully return to Earth.
The number-one way to prepare for future tough moments is to do what the military calls an “after-action review.” Do it routinely, not only in your operation but for you personally. I’ve spoken with entrepreneurs who routinely sit down at the end of their week and look at the decisions they’ve made. It’s almost meditative. They get rid of all other distractions and review what they did, what they might have done differently, and what lessons came out of that, for future reference.
The second thing to do is to put yourself in situations that get you out of your comfort zone, if you’ll forgive the business-speak term. The more you can force yourself to do things 30% different from what you’ve already done, again and again, the better you’ll be prepared to stretch under huge duress.
Can guilt produce courage?
Being a coward is corrosive to your self-esteem. Ultimately, exercising guts is better than not doing so. You say to yourself, “I’m going to feel better about myself than if I agreed when I shouldn’t have agreed. If I blinked.” If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.
Can you fake it?
In a period of distress, your own outward display of courage is absolutely vital. The lack of it is going to unwind a lot of people around you.
But you can’t fake anything in a leadership position. People sense it. They smell it. In about eight seconds, everyone knows it. If you’re trying to look like George Patton, people think, “What a phony.” And therefore your credibility is about zero.
Confidence and optimism are essential. It’s not faking it. It’s remaining optimistic through the most trying times, even when it looks pretty dark. Think about Nelson Mandela. Twenty-seven years of prison. I have to imagine he got a little discouraged, but from all accounts he never wavered in his confidence that one day South Africa would be a multiracial democracy. I am sure a few African National Congress people in prison with him said, “Nelson, you’re full of it. This is ridiculous. Your optimism is misplaced here.” And in his deepest inner moments, I am sure Mandela had doubts. But outwardly, it’s critical to have that sense of optimism. As long as you believe it’s true and can communicate that back to the people you lead, you overcome any inauthenticity.
The only way faking it can work is if everyone loves you and they know you’re trying to do it for their benefit: “The guy’s killing himself trying to build up our courage.” But usually, people see the inconsistency between words and reality, and it weakens relationships and increases cynicism.
Stress: Does it stimulate or stifle courage?
There’s a famous graph in industrial psychology that depicts that under very low levels of stress for experienced folks, performance isn’t as great as it is when there’s a modest level of stress. But it’s a parabolic curve. It goes up for a while — more stress, better performance — but it crests at a panic point. As stress goes beyond that panic point, performance tapers off. The calling of a leader is to ensure that each person who works for her doesn’t reach that point and become paralyzed.
Is courage an individual or a group activity?
Except at the margins, courage is not a product of individual behavior. In combat, I saw people do things that were just plain nuts. Our medic would crawl into harm’s way to put a tourniquet on someone badly hurt. But he was doing it because he felt so much a part of the platoon. I think [Steven] Spielberg really got it with Band of Brothers. In episode 7, Lt. Dike looks like a coward because he withdrew on the eve of the Battle of the Bulge. He couldn’t connect to a band of brothers.
Courage is a function of feeling part of a social fabric, of a network that’s going to do something that has never been done before. People do gutsy things because they’re in a group. This is “a mission from God,” as Steve Jobs once said. They’re going to make a dent in the universe. They’re all in this together. Whether it’s inventing the first PC or the way Clinton and Gore ran their ’92 campaign, a group factor informed and fueled that collective definition of success. Leaders articulate those goals and incarnate the behavior through symbolic conduct to get people to follow. When Cicero spoke, people marveled; when Caesar spoke, people marched. Getting people to march behind your ideas takes courage.
Everyone has multiple constituencies. You have to understand how they will or won’t support that courageous act. Is the board supporting what you’re going to do? What about the people to whom you report and the people who report to you? It’s rare that people take actions without understanding what the potential network of support is. That’s the calculus of courage.
You have to have a gang of believers, folks who can take on the resistance and share in some of the courageous acts with you. Otherwise, it’s too lonely and you can’t make it. I think Jacques Nasser was a courageous leader at Ford. The tragedy was that he didn’t build a close enough coalition around him.
How do you inspire others to show some guts?
You have to grab them at some level and kind of suck them into feeling a little more at ease with the notion that if they stick their neck out, they’re not going to be shot. Everybody talks about what a great leader Lincoln was, but no one wants to die. But you can use Lincoln’s story in the right way to get people to do what seems illogical, to stick their necks out as much as he did.
How do values relate to courage?
When you have to make a fast decision with significant stakes, you better know what you stand for, because the temptation to violate your basic commitments in life can be large because of the stress of the moment.
The example that’s most powerfully affected my thinking on this is that of the current vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Peter Pace, a Marine four-star general. During the Vietnam War, he’s a 22-year old officer in charge of a field reconnaissance run. He stands up with his lance corporal after having been crouched down while studying a map. As the two of them stand, the lance corporal is fatally hit by a sniper in a village about 500 yards away. Pace’s first battlefield casualty lies a foot from him.
Pace turns to the radioman to order an artillery barrage on the town. Just then, a 20-year noncommissioned officer, a sergeant, gives him a killer look. Pace got the message. Who knows who is in that village? He calls off the barrage. They cautiously enter the village, populated with only women and children. The sniper was long gone.
That look from his sergeant forced Pace to get in touch with himself so anger didn’t overwhelm his thinking, so he could be courageous under trying circumstances. Pace got to that realization through a pretty tough moment in life. But you can do it through meditation, through reading history, and most important, through repeatedly putting yourself to the test and learning from it.
So is there courage in being patient?
Absolutely. My Army captain in World War II, Captain Bessinger, had the courage to be patient. I was a kid, grumbling about inadequate air cover and tank support and so on. One day I blurted out, “I for one don’t know how the hell we’re going to win this f—ing war unless . . .” And Bessinger said to me, “S–t, kid, we’ve got an army, too.” That was the truth I needed. If you have a true belief in where you’re going, and then the endurance to wait, that’s courageous.
Courage is the capacity to wait until you’ve learned as much as you can and then take action. You’re never sure of the results until you do it. You’re still not going to know everything. You have to take gambles and learn more. Queen Elizabeth I wanted to put off most decisions as long as she could. She didn’t make a decision until she had to.
Where do you find the courage to speak truth to power?
That’s what whistle-blowers do. Andrew Jackson once said that it takes a lot of courage to be in a duel, but the harder kind of courage is telling a good friend no. Cultures of fear abound. Abu Ghraib. The USA Today plagiarism scandal. The two NASA space shuttle disasters. People put their heads down. How do you create cultures as a leader? Create enough psychological safety [for people] to speak up. Reward it, and ingrain it into the culture. Then we’ll make whistle-blowers irrelevant.
How do today’s CEOs define bold leadership?
The boldness being recognized and celebrated today is cautious and thoughtful. Boldness was being distorted by that generation of swashbuckling serial acquirers: deal-a-day Dennis Kozlowski at Tyco, Ken Lay at Enron, WorldCom’s Bernie Ebbers. They were intoxicated with churning up the waters, making a big splash. There was no logic to it, and there was no business courage behind it.
What you see today at exemplars such as Pfizer, IBM, GE, and 3M is an embracing of big ideas. Their leaders are going back to imagination. They’re funding expensive research, things that may take a little while to pan out. These visions are modeled on a lot of the entrepreneurial genius in those companies’ histories. The legends they’re drawing on go back to those pioneers, whether it’s a founder or a key reshaper. At IBM, they’re not referencing Lou Gerstner; they’re referencing Thomas Watson Jr. and his bet on the IBM 360 mainframe. Even McDonald’s is rediscovering Ray Kroc. Today’s leaders are asking, “What’s the core nature of our business and how do we stretch it to its limits?”
How do you get a board of directors to be daring with you?
What you have to do is educate your board. You have to encourage dissent, have people take positions of devil’s advocate to try to create that culture.
It’s not easy. Boards right now are financially risk-averse, legally risk-averse, and reputationally risk-averse. Rather than encouraging boldness, boards have arms folded, anxious to look as if they’re being watchful. But the result is that CEOs can’t let their hair down and show vulnerabilities and ask for help, which is a key aspect of being courageous. A balance of power, a legal conception of governance, doesn’t encourage nimble risk taking.
What’s the greatest enemy of courage?