Courage In Organisations, In Concept (Event Report One)

Although this webinar is about Legitimate Leadership’s view of courage in organisations we start by referring to the bestselling book by Adam Grant, Give and Take. Grant explored which of two strategies in organisations would tend to be more successful, drawing on research from across the United States.

One conclusion he drew was that some of the most successful people in organisations are givers. We at Legitimate Leadership were pleased because this conclusion is very supportive of our framework.

But there was a fly in the ointment: Grant also concluded that some of the least successful people in organisations were givers.

What then accounts for why some givers are successful and others are not successful? Grant concluded that the answer had a lot to do with the choices that givers made about who to give to or what to give. We agree with this conclusion – we believe the givers of generosity who are less successful find it difficult to make choices about what kind of generosity is appropriate in situations that they face.

But we believe that Grant did not ask the essential question – namely, what the appropriate give is in a particular situation. Grant’s book talked only about generosity, but we say there are two kinds of giving. One of them absolutely is generosity; but the other is courage.

Both generosity and courage require you to put your own interests in the back seat and put the interests of other in the front seat. But what you have to put in the back seat differs between the two.

Generosity involves being generous with things like our time, support, empathy, knowledge and experience.

Courage on the other hand typically requires a far higher price because then we put ourselves at risk.

Giving courageously is, in our view, first and foremost a matter of willingness. It is not about competence, skill or knowledge. It is largely about whether or not people have the resolve and the will to do so.

Courage is not about the absence of fear. Courage is about feeling fear in a situation but nevertheless facing the fear and acting despite it – doing what is right or what is appropriate.

We feel afraid or uncomfortable in these situations because of physical pain, uncertainty, intimidation or the risk of material or non-material loss. When courage is involved there is always a real risk of losing something valuable of ourselves. Courage is what is required in order to overcome that fear.

There is also, in our view, a connection between maturity and courage. As we mature we develop our capacity for suspending our self-interest – in other words, what we’re here to get or to take. We develop an increasing capacity for focusing on or acting in the interests of others. As we mature we develop or grow our capacity for giving unconditionally and we also therefore grow our capacity for giving courageously.

And there is not a link between chronological age and maturity. Rather, maturation is largely a matter of the will – a matter of choosing to set aside self-interest and act in the interests of the other.

Organisations are typically not good at courage for various reasons:

  1. Leaders and employees feel a need to have and maintain affiliative relationships with others – the perceived importance that your colleagues like you. Sometimes acting with courage necessitates putting those relationships at risk and often people are not prepared to do that. Sometimes the issue is that your needs – what you want to get out of the situation – come first and you are not able or willing to suspend those needs. So instead of acting with courage you act in your own interests.
  2. There’s a lack of trust in the organisation. People who perhaps want to take courageous action simply don’t trust that it will have a positive outcome – so they don’t do it. For instance, people are often not prepared to challenge authority because a pervasive view is that you should not stick your head above the parapet; that if you do, it’s very likely to be chopped off. Courageous action is seen as likely to be career-limiting.
  3. People grapple with courage because they haven’t really thought about what their values are – what they really are prepared to take a bullet for. If you are not sure of what you are prepared to take a bullet for, you may fall for anything.
  4. People will, particularly if they understand their values, be courageous for a cause. But many organisations don’t have causes that are worth being courageous for, or have not articulated them.
  5. A difficulty with taking risks is that the negative consequences are always clear and immediate. But the long-term benefits are not – they are often only realised in the future.
  6. Although courage is often a critical ingredient in success, success is more likely to be attributed to good strategy, sound decision-making, knowledge, competence, a good business model or good people. When success happens it is not often unpacked to see what courageous acts enabled it. Courage is also difficult to measure and reward for.
  7. Very few of the most famous authors on leadership place courage as a cornerstone of leadership. Yet you might have a great personality and intellect and experience – but you can’t successfully lead an organisation without courage!
  8. All this means there are often few role models – few people to look to in organisations who act with courage and produce positive outcomes.

There are four organisational-environments-and-individual-courage possibilities:

  1. The individual is not courageous and the environment also is not conducive to courage. Most likely, courageous action will not happen.
  2. The individual is courageous and the environment is good at cultivating and encouraging courage. Legitimate Leadership’s experience is that courageous acts will happen.
  3. The individual isn’t courageous in an environment that does support courageous action. Courageous action is very unlikely.
  4. Finally, the individual is courageous but not in an environment that encourages courage. Legitimate Leadership’s experience is that despite this, the individual will act with courage.

This all starts not so much with focusing on the organisation’s environment and systems, but with people. Legitimate Leadership’s view is that when you cultivate enough people to act with courage, they will eventually create an environment that’s conducive to courage.

So when Legitimate Leadership works with organisations on this issue it places the focus on cultivating courageous individuals – enabling people to make the shift in intent and in motive in order to enable them to rise above a fear of loss and to act with courage when appropriate.