At 18, I was a painfully shy and quiet college freshman. I had joined my college weekly as its rock critic. And a fascinating scene unfolded at my first staff meeting with all of the newspaper’s top editors. I watched as one editor — not even the editor-in-chief — completely dominated the session.
Everyone else sat stone silent, allowing themselves to be bullied by their colleague’s arrogance and intelligence. They all seemed unnerved yet unwilling to speak up. Like everyone else in the room, I was afraid of him, too. But I couldn’t let him get away with it. I overcame the fear that kept everyone else quiet and let him have it, methodically laying out arguments that refuted just about everything he said.
This wasn’t about winning or losing. It was about liberating the team from the influence of someone who was acting from his own oversized ego. And it worked. Over time, others began speaking against him as well. He slowly became marginalized and left. In that moment of truth, I gained a measure of self-confidence by acting against my fears of openly challenging a person more powerful than I was.
The story is worth recounting because I think of this little incident as a turning point in my life, the first occasion when I didn’t hold back what I thought. I felt then exactly as Senator John McCain describes in his keynote essay for this special leadership issue: “Courage 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. It’s the moment — however brief or singular — when we are our complete, best self, when we know with an almost metaphysical certainty that we are right.” There have been many moments, before and since, when I was not courageous. But in that college-newspaper office so many years ago, I felt I was my best self.
In this issue, directed by special-projects editor Bill Breen, we celebrate courageous leadership in all its forms. There is the courage to speak and hear the truth, even when doing so can cost you your job. There is the courage to pursue audacious goals, to empower and to trust your colleagues. There is the courage to focus on the long term when everyone else is fixed on the next quarter. And there is the courage to fail, to know when it is wise to quit. You’ll find examples of each among our profiles of extraordinary leaders that begin on page 49.
Why courage, and why now? Because, as McCain argues, courage is the essential virtue, the one that allows all the others. It is at the core of what great leadership is all about, a notion that Fast Company has always embraced. Yet we live in a time when nerve and daring are less apparent than ever — in our personal and professional lives, in our organizations, in our boardrooms, and on the world stage. It was our lack of courage that led to many of the business scandals in recent years. If we had been more courageous, if we had held our leaders to higher standards, and if we had not been seduced by their siren songs of easy wealth, much of the outrageous behavior that characterized the boom years would not have occurred. And it was business leaders’ lack of courage in the aftermath of the bust that caused so many of them to hunker down into risk-averse behavior.
You can take a measure of how scarce courage is when you ask someone to name a person who best embodies what courage is today. Senator McCain sprang to our mind, which is why we asked him, at this highly politicized moment, to write our centerpiece essay. But it is an unfortunate reflection on our time that so few others immediately stand out.
That is why we explore this provocative and timely topic. We hope this issue will inspire you to act courageously against your own fears. For as McCain so wisely notes, “You must be afraid to have courage. . . . Courage is not the absence of fear, but the capacity of action despite our fears.”