The one where it’s about courage

I read a piece in the Washington Post yesterday which talked about outgoing US Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates and a speech he made to the US Naval Academy graduation ceremony at Annapolis, Maryland. If you want to read a larger excerpt then it’s here but the part that really caught my attention was this:

“A further quality of leadership is courage: not just the physical courage of the seas, of the skies and of the trenches, but moral courage. The courage to chart a new course, the courage to do what is right and not just what is popular, the courage to stand alone, the courage to act, the courage as a military officer to “speak truth to power.”

In most academic curricula today, and in most business, government and military training programs, there is great emphasis on team-building, on working together, on building consensus, on group dynamics. You have learned a lot about that. But, for everyone who would become a leader, the time will inevitably come when you must stand alone. When alone you must say, “This is wrong” or “I disagree with all of you and, because I have the responsibility, this is what we will do.” Don’t kid yourself — that takes real courage”

When someone says the word courage to me I always think of what you could term “big match” courage, most typified by a military style courage, the stuff that wins Victoria Crosses or Military Medals – the taking of hills, the rescuing of comrades under fire but if you consider courage in other forms you could cite numerous examples: Rosa Parks keeping her seat, Nelson Mandela forgiving the prison guards, Rosalind Franklin defying gender segregation to make scientific history, and the list could go on [Read @ThinkingFox’s blog from this morning for more great examples]

However, the point that Gates so eloquently makes and that which is probably most relevant in an organisational context is being able to ‘speak truth to power’ in other words, how not to be a ‘yes man’. But (and there has to be a but) more pertinently in an organisational context, how to avoid being a yes person WITHOUT being on the receiving end of a P45 or sent to the proverbial “Russian Front”

Harvard Business Review ran a piece in 2007 entitled “Courage as a Skill” and in it Kathleen Reardon talks about how this form of moral courage isn’t actually what is effective in organisations. She goes on to define a concept called the “courage calculation” or more simply put the intelligent and planned taking of calculated risk. Her calculation involves considering goals, determining importance, understanding the power dynamics and influencing them in your favour, judging the risk vs. reward (or as my boss used to term it “is it a hill to die on?”), timing (not just the secret of comedy) and understanding your plan B (check canopy etc)

From personal experience, of taking risks and having read this article and discussed it with various groups I’ve worked with in recent years, it’s not an easy thing, even with all the prep in the world. All the thinking in the world won’t control your pulse, the cold sweat and the dryness of mouth you could well experience in having one of these conversations but the feeling afterwards? Amazing! Tall buildings? Single Bounds? CHECK

I am now further along the process of interviewing people from my Masters dissertation (you remember, the whole reason for setting this blog up) and what’s interesting in considering corporate entrepreneurs is how consistent risk taking seems to be as a trait (so far). What’s also interesting and maybe more defining is how often the risk isn’t this thought through calculated form of risk but actually more needs driven almost a personal imperative. It seems that for some of them the thought of not telling truth to power and getting their idea/plan/opinion/strategy out there is far scarier and more damaging than the outcomes that would cause most of us to back away…

Whichever form of courage you see (and you will see it in everyday life) or have the most respect for, there is a line from Robert Frost that always seems to run through my head when these situations arise either for me or around me in organisational life and it seems as good as place as any to close:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –

I took the one less travelled by,

and that has made all the difference”



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6 responses to “The one where it’s about courage

  1. Great post, Rob. The road less travelled by has all the adventures. And that’s what life’s all about in my book.

  2. Pingback: Conformity is powerful and lethal | Thinking About Learning

  3. Keith McCambridge

    Mate, very good find. Something for you to think about – courage requires fear. If you are not scared, you are not brave – bold maybe, but not brave. Interesting that many people I have worked with at the top level do not always make the connection between their actions and their consequences. Some of the best soldiers I have ever met, singularly lacked any imagination and were disfunctionally optimistic. They could not comprehend injury or death. They just hated failure. Corporate entreprenuers could well share a similar quality. They don’t fear the consequences of trying, they fear the consequences of not trying.

  4. garethmjones

    Great post Rob. for me its not about fear. Bravery and courage can be initiated by other things. The burning need to get the thing out there or to disagree with the protocol, as happens inside organisations, has little to do with fear. Fear might stop me being brave. The levels of fear might outway my courage.

    Fearless maybe?!

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