Peak Performance Strategies

Commited to your consistent success

Courage is a Verb: Guidelines for a Managerial Discussion

(published in Management Today SA, August 2006)

Executive Summary: Courage is not an attribute that some people have and some don’t. It is a process, a sequence of things done by people that in retrospect is dubbed “courage.” Leaders and managers are prevented from doing courage by a fear of knowing, a fear of deciding and or a fear of doing. In the managerial discussion to overcome “not doing courage” it is useful to hear where the person is stuck: at knowing, deciding or doing.

Courage as a Verb

I it surprising that one does not read more about “courage” in these times when challenge, change, and global are mentioned in every piece of leadership and management material. Not the fact that it is mentioned, but the fact that there are very few authors who give a map of what courage is and what it takes. Here is one such effort.

  • Courage can be described as a multi-facetted process of thoughts and action, as “stages on thought’s way to action.” (an expression of Amelie Rorty when describing the path of courage. From Howard Harris’ “Courage as Management Virtue” in Business and professional Ethics Journal, Vol.18, no’s 3&4, p30).
  • Courage seems to indicate wanting to make a difference, typically a difference characterized as an improvement towards “better.” Words like “it is time for …,” and “for the sake of the company (“the larger good”)…” are also used.
  • The reason why the initiative is started is linked to a higher goal (values, survival, redefining, and quality of work life). It is subservient to a “big why”: the effort is linked to a moral reason, a “higher purpose” for wanting to make the difference.
  • It is a practical wisdom. The initiator is held personally responsible for the outcome in strict business terms.
  • Courage is at least three distinct thinking events: to know (having a strong enough reason why), to decide (having a clear goal towards which to move, to achieve or attain), and to do (involving other people and a sourcing a good dollop of “resilience, energy and industriousness”).
  • Courageous behaviors follow from courageous thoughts.
  • Fear and not having the will to do courage are not the opposites of courage, but do act as obstacles to doing the courageous thing.

Preventing Courage

Firstly: fear of knowing start frequently with an unwillingness to “confront reality” and to persevere in doing more of the “inappropriate same”. Bossidy and Charan describe it as “the First Law of Holes”: “when you’re in one, stop digging.” (Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan @2004 “Confronting Reality”, RandomHouse Business Books, p.13).

Not knowing, or refusing to confront reality and realize the reason why means that there is no impetus for starting to “make a difference” efforts. (see ebook “The Art of Making a Difference”.) A strong reason why is also the source for the resilience and industriousness required in the execution phase. Giving up could be that the reason why is just not strong enough, or important enough to stand atop other things to do and wish for.

Secondly: fear of deciding does not result from a single thing. It is a complex set of justifications and convictions that prevent the person from getting to the decision to act. Like any conviction, convictions about why to stay the same gets reinforced the more they are questioned or debated with. Every argument against staying the same re-anchors “staying the same”. Why? Every time the person has to defend their position and come up with a new argument they are stacking the anchors and reinforcing the conviction. One comes at an inappropriate conviction like a grab: carefully and sideways.

Thirdly: the fear of doing is rooted in a number of thought viruses: not believing one has what it takes to make it happen (and excluding the possibility of involving others in meaningful and structured ways); being confronted by an unclear goal or poor metrics for tracking progress; being overwhelmed by ones personal responsibility for the outcomes; and not having enough possibilities up ones sleeve to be prepared to deal with the contingencies that will rush at one.

Doing Courage

Courage comes as a package which includes at least the three elements described above. Courage is not a “one thing and one time event” in business circles. It is a wheel of though and action that turns many times and continuously. Which is why this author believe it is a legitimate domain for having a managerial discussion.

The knowing-deciding-doing cycle happens at different levels of thinking (highly abstract to adjust strategy, to very practical to make a decision on a daily operational basis) effecting priorities in different ways throughout the company. “Just in time” managerial discussion (see Kruger and Jacobs’ “Just in time Managerial Conversations” at guided by the coach becomes the tool for doing what it takes to make a difference.

i. Listen diagnostically to hear where in the path to action the person is getting stuck. More than 6 years of experience has taught the author that the person can get stuck anywhere in the chain. They can know and not decide, they can decide that it “should” happen and not plan their priorities in such a way that they are instrumental in making it happen; etc.

ii. “get 6”: get an outcome; get definition of actions; get possibilities; get commitment; get metrics or evidence for tracking; and get follow-up.

iii. Give regular support and refreshing inputs to maintain the resilience and industriousness required for sustainability over time.