Courage is Critical to CEO Success
Having the courage to do what is right is more critical today than ever. In today's business climate, every organization must be entrepreneurial, nimble and take smart risks just to survive.
However, the hyper-fast world is getting more complex and uncertain, creating greater fear in the workplace.
Having courage means managers can ask: “How can we do the right thing for our customers, employees and society?” Out of fear, managers might ask: “How can we maintain our personal standing, our jobs and the status quo?” Fear blocks an organization's ability to move forward. Fear keeps millions of individuals from reaching their potential.
Courage makes change and innovation possible. Courage is vital to challenge conventional thinking and envision new possibilities. CEOs know that talented people must take risks to solve big problems and innovate. Most importantly, individuals need courage to live by their values, even when job security is put at risk.
Even though job security is an outdated expectation, leaders must create a courageous culture by fostering an environment where people can bring forward new ideas, challenge the status quo and share bad news, especially when it affects the customer. It takes courage for employees to communicate messages that are not well received but often represent the canary in the coal mine.
Fearful cultures tend to exhibit a lack of alignment around values. Values may be on the organization's website but don't guide daily behavior and decision-making. These companies are most often managed in a hierarchical fashion, with orders emanating from the top instead of communication flowing in all directions throughout the organization. Managers are told what they want to hear instead of what is most important for the business.
In a culture of fear-based silence, people know something is wrong, but don't speak up. This type of culture was inbred at General Motors, leading to major car fatalities in the current case of ignition-switch problems. These problems were known for years, but not reported and only recently addressed. Their emphasis was on keeping things moving and not bringing anything to the table that would get in the way or bring bad news.
In courageous cultures, leaders share defined values and behaviors repeatedly which filter down and are known and understood throughout the organization. Leaders insist on accountability and taking personal responsibility, while creating a safe space for mistakes.
They do not assign blame for failures, but seek to minimize the cost of failure, allowing for failure that instructs the employee and guides the organization, all while containing costs. Silicon Valley's mantra is emulated: “Fail fast, fail cheap, learn and move on.”
Courageous leaders are wary of all-good news, making certain that issues are brought to light in a timely and proactive manner. They know that glossing over a problem is invariably worse than addressing it early and actively. They consciously and conscientiously listen, as listening engenders learning. When employees are afraid to appear disagreeable and shy away from vigorous discourse, leaders encourage robust healthy debate and demonstrate how respectful open discourse leads to optimal decision-making.
To quote Eleanor Roosevelt: “Courage is more exhilarating than fear and in the long run, it is easier.” In male-dominated Wall Street, Sallie Krawcheck believed in herself and was not afraid to speak her mind when she held a high-powered job at Citibank during the mortgage crisis. She suggested giving clients their money back and was not afraid to write negative things as a research analyst when no one was doing this.
Very often, the right decisions are the hardest ones to make. Using your values to make strategic decisions, both personally and professionally, although harder short-term, will in the long run provide huge payoffs.
Stuart R. Levine is chairman/CEO of Stuart Levine Ȧ Associates. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (516) 465-0800.