Managerial Courage

What appears to be one of the barmier management training techniques involves people walking over hot coals. The “trick” of Hindu holy men can be done anywhere,and the purpose and message of this potentially painful and dangerous act: management is really most about courage.

It is part of the same message that is at the heart of outdoor training. The idea is that management is as much about the heart as the head. That people need each other to survive, literally as you ford rivers and cross ravines. And also, as importantly, you learn more from experiential training than conceptual training.

Potholes work better than power point; mountains better than manuals; bush-walking better than breakout groups. There is a lot to learn in becoming a competent business manager: about strategy, technology, accounting and appraisal. One can even learn the soft skills necessary for counselling and negotiation. But there are a few things one does not learn in business school or in the boardroom: courage, balls, guts. Business courage is not that different from battle courage: it is surprising who does and does not manifest it, when and why.

Reading obituaries of courageous medal-holders, is not always clear what drove them to conspicuous acts of gallantry. Often they were motivated primarily by care of their fellow men more than hatred of the enemy. Occasionally it is about taking well-calculated risks. And sometimes it is more about luck.

There are at least three types of courage needed in business. The first is the courage to fail. It is the courage to try something new; to experiment; to buck the trend; to take risk. It takes confidence and self-belief. With failure comes humiliation, recrimination and a broken reputation.

For many managers the cost to themselves (let alone others) is simply too great. They may have a really good idea about product innovation, process re-engineering or even man-management, but the fear of getting it wrong means they do nothing. They let others win the prises.

Courage to fail and judicious risk assessment are not the same thing. One can make an excellent risk calculation but on the same data set some will and some will not act. Lack of courage may be the result of low confidence, a very conservative mentality, and pressure from home. Others go in for so much analysis (to be sure), it all ends in analysis paralysis with nothing being done.

The courage to fail is the courage to be first, to try something new, to be ahead of your time; to trust your instincts; to be creative, knowing it could all go very wrong.

Perhaps the most important and neglected courage is interpersonal courage. It’s the sort of courage it takes to confront the employee with BO; or to make people redundant. More than assertiveness and counselling are involved here. It’s the courage to deal with others’ raw emotions; to say what needs to be said; to show compassion; even to be strong by being weak.

Appraisal systems fail because managers can’t tell people their performance is average. Turnover gets out of hand because work-place bullies are not confronted or the aggressively hypochondriacal are not warned. The more intellectual the managers or the culture, the less comfortable they are around emotions of any sort.

The secretary to the CEO and the safety officer who discover they can exercise tremendous power over those more senior than they and block productive work. The attention-seeking neurotics who make sure all around them obey curious rules to make them happy. The backstabbing inadequates, angry for being “passed over”, who in effect work to rule. The HR people whose personal counselling obsessions mean they are in effect doing a different (and inappropriate) job compared to the one they were hired for. They all need to be confronted: directly, quickly and fairly.

And you will be surprised at the number of captains-of-industry who can’t face all that “emotional stuff”. Some have favoured henchmen for the task, or henchwomen, as women often seem much better at this. Indeed, women always seem more interpersonally sensitive and courageous than men. Studies on dying patients have shown that it is not the clever (male) oncologists who unambiguously tell the patient their fate, but rather the (female) night nurses. Often female process consultants can say things to an all male board that no man can. That is emotional courage.

The third type of courage is moral courage: the courage to stand up for a set of moral beliefs when in the ethical quick sands of modern day business. Senior managers are confronted every day with moral dilemmas, challenges and temptation. It involves the courage to refuse a senior colleague appointing his/her spouse or children the job others are better suited to (nepotism). It involves setting a strict, open and reasonable policy on receiving gifts of all sorts and at all levels. The “fact-finding mission” may be as prone to bribery as a hamper at Christmas.

Often the hardest task is drawing the line in the mercurial world of business where so many appear to be disregarding the rules; bending the guidelines; ripping people off. It is the courage of Bonhoeffer or Wallenberg. It is the courage not to give into or turn a blind eye to wrong doing. It may be about little else than ensuring fairness.

But in the world of moral relativism, it is all too easy to remain silent. It takes courage for the parent to inform the social security that their excellent, caring but deceiving nanny is claiming unemployment benefit. It takes courage to take a real stand against the forces of darkness.

Curiously few companies have courage as a core competency. They may have ideas about assertiveness, negotiation and risk taking but courage is more than this. Churchill and Thatcher were courageous, but also difficult to deal with. It can make leaders seem fanatical and intolerant. And of course the line between courageous and pig headed is often fine.

But there remain many companies eternally grateful to the CEO who has all three aspects of courage mentioned above: to fail, to confront, to uphold principle. And it can be the most unlikely of people who do and don’t manifest it. For some, they only take courage when the chips are really down, but for others it is a really enduring characteristic.


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