Courage In Organisations, In Practice (Event Report Two)

Jimmy Furstenberg’s first job was as a labour relations officer in what is today Bridgestone Firestone South Africa. At the time, the 1980s, the labour relations environment in South Africa was a virtual war zone because the workplace was the only legal arena for the expression of black aspirations during apartheid. Then Bridgestone International bought Firestone International. A condition of the deal was that Firestone International’s Port Elizabeth factory would be closed if it wasn’t turned around within six months.

Appointed as manufacturing director, Jimmy led the turnaround process, applying legitimate leadership principles.

Jimmy recalls that at the start of the turnaround process, “My MD, Steve Shiller, and I did a trip around the world to benchmark our factory against similar factories. The Port Elizabeth factory had been built in 1938 as part of the World War II effort, so it was an old dog and there was a lot we had to do. We were in a lift in Rome and Steve and I said to each that we would fix the factory no matter what we needed to do. We shook hands on it. We resolved that because it was the right thing to do.

“In December 1994 we faced Irvin Jim (general secretary of NUMSA union and probably South Africa’s most militant union leader then and today – editor). Jim wagged his finger at me and said he would see to it that no people would lose their jobs and that there would be no change. But Steve and I had agreed that there would be change no matter what, so we took on NUMSA. You could call it courageous or foolhardy, but we did it because it was the right thing to do.

“That is the most important thing – somehow it’s easier being courageous when you are driven by a purpose.

“The end result was that we turned around that factory despite a major strike. Six months later the factory had improved productivity by 60%. To this day – the factory is still operating – NUMSA does not know that it was set up for a strike. We kept thousands of people in employment, which was the just cause. Courage is not easy but it becomes easier when you are driven by the right cause, the right contribution.

“Courage will emerge where a courageous environment has been created. When organisations look to cultivate it, it is mostly about leaders rather than non-leaders. In my experience, it is not the employees who will become courageous , its about leaders who have to change, then employees will change. You will find individual flickers of employees being courageous, but mainly it comes down to the leaders.

“I don’t rate myself as a courageous person but when I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to make decisions I have made them on the basis of what I think comes down to:

  • Having self-belief in myself as a leader. Deep down you have to say, ‘I back myself to be able to do what I what I’m going to do now.’
  • Having a just cause, a purpose. So if the business that you’re in does not fire you up, the short answer is, leave it! An organisation is the best place for you to develop yourself as a leader and individual. Life is too short.

“One definition I read of leadership is that it is the most difficult 18-inch journey you will find between your head and your heart. When you make a courageous decision it must come from the heart because if it doesn’t you’re not going to feel the pain of it; it’s not going to drive you enough to be able to do what you have got to do.”

“Legitimate leadership says that 70% of problems in leadership in organisations is a result of means issues (leaders and managers not providing the environment and the tools, resources, enabling systems, processes, time, decision-making authority and information, etc). Managers and leaders provide the means, so managers and leaders are actually the project. They must admit that they are the project. So though managers and leaders must be confident, they must also be humble enough to admit this.

“What is the relationship between courage and trust? Courage is about taking a risk. You don’t know what the result will be. But you have to have some trust that if you act courageously and do the right thing for a just reason there will be a positive result. If you are fundamentally mistrustful of the outcome, if you believe that the result will always be bad, it is much harder to have courage.

“It not easy – if it was easy, it would not require courage. The risk that you face when you have to act with courage is always immediate. Rising above it is what makes it courageous. But you do need some trust that it’s going to turn out all right.”

Said Joshua Hayman in the webinar, about another example of courage: “When a particular manager was recruited at a time when he had a young family, he accepted the job on the basis of an undertaking that it would not involve international travel. But the management of the company changed thereafter and the new CEO insisted that he would have to travel internationally. The new hire asked the manager who had made the original undertaking to him, to tell the disciplinary committee about that undertaking. The manager who had made the undertaking told the disciplinary committee despite having been advised that if he did he might lose his job. This manager took the risk because he fundamentally felt that the stance being taken by the new CEO was not fair – but if the CEO insisted on it, this was not the kind of organisation he wanted to work for.”

Said Ian Munro in the webinar: “Courage doesn’t develop if it is not required. For instance organisations often do anonymous surveys. These prioritise accuracy and correctness over asking people to be courageous. There are downsides to anonymity. It’s important for organisations to think about whether something needs to be anonymous or whether they should ask people to be courageous.

“The issue of courage also arises in performance appraisal systems. The more we systematic we can make them, the less courageous we have to be in providing feedback etc. We use systems to remove the need for courage – it is so easy then to say ‘it’s not me but the process’. In fact that is acting with cowardice.”

How do you help leaders, and the people they lead, to develop courage?

Said Joshua: “Walk the talk. Demonstrate the courage yourself. Which means holding people to account, handling conflict, taking risks, showing your own integrity and moral strength. Courage can be developed but it comes back to what is in your heart – your own belief in yourself and your cause.

“Developing courage within an individual is quite practical. The individual may not feel courageous but a start is to get her thinking about the issue of courage and what it takes. Ask the person to think of an instance in her history in which she felt that she acted with courage. How did she feel, what was the worst outcome and what was the best outcome? And think of opposite situations – in which she should have acted with courage but did nothing or did the opposite. How did that feel and what were the outcomes, positive and negative.

“This thinking allows people to connect with their own notions of courage.

“You can also identify opportunities in that person’s job for acting with courage, and find a place for her to start. Don’t do the biggest thing first – challenge her but do not paralyse her with fear. It helps if you can engineer a situation in which the person has some success. Courage is not encouraged if the person’s head gets chopped off on the first attempt.

“And there is rehearsal and practice. If there is a conversation a person needs to have with a manager or a subordinate, what will he say, how will he say it, what does he want to put across? Rehearsal gives the person some encouragement.

“The starting point is an admission by the person that he grapples with courage and needs help. It requires a plan of action practical. The helper needs to know the person to be encouraged and what will paralyse him and what will do the opposite.

“Organisations typically don’t make it plain that courage is what they want from their people. So the simplest thing to do is emphasize the display of courage as a behaviour standard and give practical examples of what that means in context. Ask for it, and reward it. And don’t tolerate the opposite of it – take a firm line on cowardice.”

When does courage become foolhardiness? Said Jimmy: “Courage is not about making instantaneous decisions necessarily. It’s about a considered view of the situation particularly in organisations. Some people might be impetuous and their actions might appear courageous but everybody knows its stupidity.

“Don’t lose sight of the purpose for which you are acting. Whose interests am I doing this in? If it is theirs, is it actually the right thing to do? It comes back to the ‘why’ and the purpose.”