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Leadership: Stand Up and Be Counted

Dances with Wolves was a critical and box office success. It established creator and star, Kevin Costner, as an actor with exceptional talent as well as a gifted director. Costner was a bankable star before Dances with Wolves but had never directed. Two other big-name directors turned the project down, citing problems with the script. Every major studio passed on it at least once.

Dances with Wolves was a critical and box office success. It established creator and star, Kevin Costner, as an actor with exceptional talent as well as a gifted director. Costner was a bankable star before Dances with Wolves but had never directed. Two other big-name directors turned the project down, citing problems with the script. Every major studio passed on it at least once.

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As Costner told Dennis Davies of NPR’s Fresh Air, he was on his “second lap” of studio pitches when at his last pitch he insisted on two things. One, the movie contain subtitles because much of the dialogue would be in the Lakota language. Two, he would have the final cut, meaning the movie would reflect his final views. When he exited that studio pitch, his fellow producer pulled him aside and asked why he insisted on the final cut. Costner replied that if the studio did not believe in doing the movie in Lakota then what other things would it cut. Costner stood up for himself and his picture, and of course the movie was a hit around the world.

What Costner did was stand up for himself. He stood by his convictions. He put his work first. It was certainly a matter of ego, but it was more a matter of standing up for the material, the art – what the project stood for and why it was important. Standing up for convictions is laudable; we love to tell stories about it. Heroes are made of stand up for what is right and what is not. However, in the corporate world, so often standing up for your conviction can get you fired. And so that’s why it sometimes seems self-righteous for outsiders, that is, consultant types like me, to laud convictions. Not going along with the flow can get you a fast ticket to nowhere.

Given the hierarchical imperative where disagreements can get you bounced, how do you argue your point of view? How do you go against the current tide for ideas that you believe in and want to pursue? There are no easy answers but the answer may be described as “knowing your limits.” That is, are you prepared to lose your job or would you rather stand and fight another day. For Costner, he was prepared to walk away from the project. For those on salary, staying in the job may be a better alternative.

There will be times, however, when speaking out can cause real problems. It’s called whistle-blowing. Those who do blow the whistle find themselves ostracized and out of a job. They may also find themselves in legal jeopardy. The general public is grateful for their courage in telling the truth about corporate misdeeds, but so often the personal price they pay is overwhelming – everything from loss of income to loss of home and hearth, and even family. That kind of conviction is remarkable, and to be praised. But none of us can ask another to do it.

Standing up for what you think is right in the corporate world can be the loneliest thing in the world. It may cost you a promotion as well as the trust of colleagues and senior leaders. At minimum you will be labeled as someone who does “play on the team.” Worse, you can be totally off the team. Yet for many this alienation can lead to new opportunities, sometimes inside the company, other times outside it. Many entrepreneurs got their start by wanting to do things differently and they did. Others did start a new business but joined another one and became successful there. The outcome is not always certain and sunny, but it may be the best choice for the individual who has to stand up for his conviction.

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Source:Dave Davies “Interview with Kevin Costner” Fresh Air WHYY/NPR 11.02.07

John Baldoni • Leadership Expert: Executive Coach/Author/Speaker • Baldoni Consulting, LLC • www.johnbaldoni.com

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