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Do you have the courage of your convictions?

The pace of change can paralyze some executives. It’s time to develop a more dynamic relationship with risk-taking and failure.

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Courage. That’s the word that comes up most frequently when I talk to senior leaders about the quality they’re looking for in executives in this very challenging moment.

Courage in this context means having the confidence and fortitude to make a decision when there is no obvious right or wrong answer. It means doing what’s best for the company, even if the decision will make people unhappy. It means sticking to your stated values, even if that comes at a cost to your standing at your company, because you refused to go along with a plan that you felt was wrong.

In working with and interviewing hundreds of executives, I have encountered some who strike me as what I call Hippocratic executives and managers. The name is taken from the Hippocratic oath of doctors, which has come to be associated with the phrase, “First, do no harm.” These leaders seem to have adopted the same philosophy in managing their career and their assignments. They play it safe, staying under the radar and not taking chances.

But if you want to move up, understand that many CEOs need to know whether you have the courage to act. Granted, not everyone in a company is making big decisions in terms of strategy or policy, or is allocating resources for new initiatives. But everyone needs to lead from his or her seat. This requires taking responsibility and figuring out how to impact and influence the organization.

“Courage is an extremely valuable skill right now,” Ryan Roslansky, the CEO of LinkedIn, told me last year. “It’s about having the courage to make a decision when there are simply no good or easy decisions to make, particularly because of covid…. It’s easy to get caught in this pattern of wanting to wait for more information, but it’s critical right now that you have the courage to just make the decision and move forward. I see a lot of people who struggle with that.”

Courage means having the confidence and fortitude to make a decision when there is no obvious right or wrong answer. It means doing what’s best for the company, even if it will make people unhappy.

How do you build greater courage?

Having an opinion on whatever is being discussed is important. “I talk with my team all the time about courage,” said Paige Ross, the global head of human resources at investment company Blackstone. “It’s not just about knowing the answer. You are expected to have a point of view and to share it. If you can’t do that on my team, you can’t progress.”

A courageous leader also has a healthy appreciation for the fact that sticking your neck out carries the risk of being wrong or failing. Many CEOs and senior leaders are looking to promote managers who have failed and can show they have learned from the experience. They want leaders who take big swings and, if they stumble, figure out what went wrong.

But still, we’re all too prone to put up facades of invincibility and perfection, polishing resumes that show a smooth trajectory and consistent record of success. In job interviews, candidates are unwilling to acknowledge any failures or weaknesses beyond the predictable non-answers of “I work too hard” or “I care too much.”

“People who don’t make bad decisions are indecisive and risk-averse,” said David Kenny, who was CEO of the Weather Company when I interviewed him years ago (he now runs market research firm Nielsen). “I love hiring people who’ve failed. We’ve got some great people here with some real flameouts. If they’ve done it once and they learned from it, they’re so much better because they took a risk. They’re much more humble, much more of a contributor to the culture, and they do great things because they learned.”

Not every leader thinks this way. There are still companies with a culture that encourages a more Hippocratic approach. They are risk-averse, and employees who try things that don’t work out can pay a penalty. The favorite word of leaders at companies like this is “no,” and they justify that approach by telling themselves, for example, that they are adding value by “protecting the brand.”

Diane Gherson, the former chief human resources officer at IBM, shared with me a memorable story from her early years in corporate life that captured this risk-averse mentality. “In my very first job out of my graduate program, I worked for this guy who was very smart,” she said. “I remember going to him, and I said, ‘I’ve got this idea on how we could improve.’ He listened to me very carefully and said, ‘That’s a really good idea. Now, you know what we do with good ideas here.’ He opened up his drawer, and in his drawer were all these little, carefully folded notes. And he said, ‘We put them in our desk, and we pull them out when it’s appropriate.’”

When the business world was more stable and predictable, that approach might have worked. But it’s not going to cut it anymore. Everyone needs to have courage now—to make decisions, to have a point of view, to act. These days, standing still means you are going to be quickly left behind.

Adam Bryant
Adam Bryant is senior managing director of the ExCo Group, a leadership development and executive mentoring firm. His next book, The Leap to Leader: How Ambitious Managers Make the Jump to Leadership, will be published in July 2023 by Harvard Business Review Press.

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