Tag Archives: Managerial Courage

A Formula for Courage

A Formula for Courage

I recently read Breaking the Fear Barrier by Tom Rieiger of Gallup Consulting.  In it, he makes the case that parochialism, territorialism, and bureaucracy grow from fear.  Managers fear losing the ability to control their outcomes so they build organizational barriers, e.g., unnecessary or self-serving rules and policies, to protect their interests.  Ultimately, those barriers do more than protect parochial interests: they protect the organization from succeeding.  Rieger also offers sound medicine for organizations that are wrapped up in fear and bureaucracy.

Rieger Sets a Low Bar

His advice is good, but he sets an awfully low bar for people.  He seems to accept that people will not be courageous and recommends methods for breaking barriers erected out of fear. Rather than treating the nasty symptoms – the barriers of bureaucracy – we should aspire to overcome the fear that gives rise to it.  Cowardice succumbs to fear whereas courage overcomes it.  I don’t know about you, but I would rather overcome than succumb.  Courage is a virtue; cowardice is a vice.

We fear failure, we fear looking silly, we fear seeming inferior to others, and we fear losing what we have.  Fear stops us from voicing a dissenting opinion, changing jobs, confronting poor behavior, facing problems, and so on.

It’s plain to me that people need a formula for courage more than they need a medicine for dealing with the symptoms of cowardice.

Life Calls for a High Bar

I would like to offer my addendum to Breaking the Fear Barrier.  I’ll call it “A Formula for Courage.”  Everyone should learn this formula by heart because courage is an essential element of a virtuous character.


  • Moral Compass
  • Worthy Goal
  • Humility
  • Self Sacrifice

* Note: Some formulas call for a measure of love.

I confess that I don’t know the proper portions, but I am confident that each is needed.

Moral Compass

A moral compass is the first ingredient because you must want to be virtuous and know what virtue looks like in order to pursue it.  Your moral compass also gives you a clear vision to see where the trials of today are headed and to know what to do about them.  Today’s small transgressions often lead to grave consequences tomorrow.  A strong moral compass provides you with that foresight and the wisdom to face trials now.

Worthy Goal

Why would anyone stare down a giant, risk failure, or endure personal harm?  Because the cause is worth it!  Of course, if you haven’t set out to accomplish anything or set your mind on being a certain kind of person, then you have no reason to take a risk.  When I am coaching people, I’ve learned that they need to be reminded of their values and goals when they are facing tough situations.  Often, all it takes for people to move to action is a simple reminder of who they are striving to be.


Have you seen the t-shirts proclaiming “It’s all about me,” “Queen Bee,” or “I’m with stupid”?  Don’t wear them.  Courage requires a clear understanding that “it” is not all about you.  Instead, it’s about putting a transcendent goal above your personal interests, and courageous leadership means placing that goal and other people before you.  The Apostle Paul counsels Christians in Philippi as follows:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others more important than yourselves.  Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3-4)

I’ve noticed that humble people are generally trusted and admired.  I’ve also noticed that the same people who esteem others for their humility often bristle at the notion that they should submit to others or truly serve people.  It feels demeaning, and perhaps it is, but true humility and submission are hard to separate.


The ultimate act of valor is to give one’s life for another person or cause.  Boys, even grown men, fantasize about being the hero who rescues another person from imminent bodily harm.  In real life self-sacrifice comes in smaller increments – kind of like Chinese water torture.  The little opportunities for self-sacrifice can seem like occasions to erode dignity one annoying drop at a time. Instead of the drama of life or death, the stakes we face are things like approval from others, a chance at a promotion, bonuses, inconvenience, and our fragile egos.  This type of self-sacrifice is a bit less glamorous and a lot harder to choose.

That’s it – that is my formula for courage.  I don’t expect Mr. Rieger to include it in his second edition, but one never knows!

What do you think of my formula? Will you try it?  Would you change it a little and make it your own?


Do Frank Conversations Hurt Your Career?

When I was a young man my Director introduced me the COO of our company (Let’s call him Jerry).  My Director was Jerry’s “escort” on a goodwill tour of our office. (It seems that he didn’t always agree with our perspective on things).  Jerry was regarded by many to be a crotchety old engineer, and I later learned that he had a reputation as a “my way or the highway” kind of guy.  But that didn’t matter much to me when Jerry asked me about a controversial position our department had taken.  I stood there in amidst the cubicles and “argued” with the COO.  I don’t think anyone but the two of us thought this was a good thing to do.

In short order, two colleagues appeared in my line of sight discreetly gesturing for me to terminate my conversation with him.  I distinctly remember one dragging his finger across his throat and mouthing “that’s Jerry, the COO.”  A few others peeped their heads over their cube walls then promptly hid, fearing they might suffer from collateral damage.  One brave person tried to distract me by approaching me with bogus issue that required immediate attention. But I wasn’t having any of it. Instead, I took my cues from my own values, and from Jerry’s signals. We disagreed, and we expressed our positions frankly. But I saw no sign that he took any offense. On my part, I was enjoying the debate and was learning quite a bit. So I engaged him, and the conversation ran its course.  Afterwards, my peers were not shy about telling me how foolish I had been. I wasn’t sure if I had been – I just didn’t know.

Two years later I learned exactly what Jerry thought of me, and it was all good. I had returned to my career in leadership development, and Jerry had an appointment with a colleague to discuss one of our training programs. I saw Jerry in the reception area and approached him to (re) introduce myself.  Before I could finish my sentence, he blurted, “I remember you! You’re Mike Boyes; I like you.”  With that encouragement in hand, I inquired about our previous encounter and he explained why he liked me.  “You took a clear position and gave a sound rationale for it. I didn’t agree with you, but it was a good discussion. We need more people like you.”  Jerry and I later became friends; he attended my wedding, and we had a few more disagreements along the way.  But few people in the company saw Jerry the way I did.  They feared disagreement with him, anticipated his wrath, and avoided crossing him.  I dare say those people missed the opportunity to learn from a smart – and nice guy.

Perhaps he mellowed by the time I got to know him. Perhaps we just shared the same perspective … that people can disagree and even argue without harming each other, that conversation is most interesting when views conflict. Whatever the reason, I am glad that I read Jerry right on that day.   

In a recent HBR article, researchers Batia M. Wiesenfled and colleagues conclude that far too often managers abuse their position of power, using it to advance their own agendas and trod on people. Too many managers view “respect and power to be mutually exclusive avenues to influence.”  (This is the reality my nervous colleagues knew well).  Meanwhile, managers who demonstrate leadership based on trust and respect can be regarded as too weak to handle top positions.  These two styles have a trickle-down effect in the organization and affect the company bottom line. Research tells us that corporate results trend upwards in organizations with a respectful, trusting, and empowering management style. In contrast, corporate results trickle down when managers tend to “power-up.”  Jerry could have powered up on me and hurt me in so many ways, but he didn’t.  I could have acted like shrinking violet, but I didn’t.  As result, I gained access to the COO of a Fortune 500 company and partnered with him on several projects.

It seems to me that entering frank conversations with peers, employees, and superiors can hurt your career.  That’s too bad because honest frank conversations are more than important for success; they are required. The gate to success is marked “Courage to Deal with Reality Required; No Ostriches Allowed.”   

So muster the courage to be honest with yourself and others – then speak frankly and tactfully.