Monday Mornings with Madison

Courageous Leadership: The #1 Skill for Times of Great Change and Turmoil – Part 1

Word Count: 1,589
Estimated Read Time: 6 min.

Courage is the skill that separates and elevates great leaders from a pack of good managers.  And when it comes to leadership in fields such as education, health care, government and especially the military, courage is considered important, but it is seldom at the top of the list of essential skills and is actually thought of more as a personality attribute or quality than a skill.   However, in the world of industry and commerce, few even think of courage as a top business skill.  In fact, most lists of top 10 leadership skills never list courage at all.  In fact, Forbes Coaches Council’s list of top skills cited the following essential business leadership skills:

  1. Humble
  2. Action-oriented
  3. Versatile
  4. Intelligent
  5. Critical thinker
  6. Visionary
  7. Authentic
  8. Inspirational
  9. Collaborative
  10. Reflective

Courage seldom makes the cut.  And yet, in times of great change and turmoil, courage is what separates those who thrive from those who barely survive or take a nose dive.  Courage is what differentiates leaders who soar from those who crash and burn.  So why is courage so important?  And is it really a skill rather than a trait?  Can courage be learned and honed?  And why isn’t it recognized as a key factor in success?  Let’s tackle those questions.

Why Courage Really Matters

First, why is courage vitally important – perhaps the most important skill of all – for business leaders?   Well, to understand the critical need for leaders to have courage, we must first define leadership.  And, there is even disagreement as to how to define this term.  Leadership is commonly defined as “the art of motivating / inspiring a group of people to act toward achieving a common goal.”  But Dr. Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston and Chairperson at the Huffington Foundation, defines leadership a little differently.  In her book, Dare to Lead, she said:

“a leader is anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.”

She doesn’t see it as the ability to get people to do what you want, which really is a combination of manipulation, inspiration and motivation.  Rather, it is the ability to spot potential and then have the mettle to develop that potential.  In her definition of leadership, courage is baked right into the formula.

Brown explains that the reason it takes courage to be able to spot and then bring out the very best in people and processes is because it is not an easy thing to do.  It is messy and thorny, and not what leaders excel at.  Most leaders who rose through the ranks because of their technical skills prefer to focus on the so-called ‘hard skills’ such as organization, development of operational systems, project management, fiscal accountability, data analysis, sales, and resource management.  They don’t often specialize in the soft skills of communication, connection, constructive criticism and inspiring creativity because that requires high-level people skills.  To find the potential and develop that potential in people requires:

  • real vulnerability
  • an ability to have frank (read: difficult, awkward, uncomfortable) conversations
  • the capacity to deliver productive feedback (which can also be tough)
  • a commitment to trust and be trusted, and
  • a willingness to confront and address fears.

And, let’s face it, most leaders shirk all of these things.  Creating an environment where all of those things can happen means checking egos at the door, being willing to deliver criticism in a non-threatening way and receive criticism without retribution, and providing a safe space where business problems can be addressed and solved.

Leadership Today Requires Courage

There are so many challenges facing workplaces today in the U.S. (and many other countries as well).  With advancing technology – robotics, AI, VR, AR and machine automation – jobs that required repetition, computation, calculation, analysis and/or assembly are increasingly being replaced by computers and automated machines.  What companies will need more and more are employees with the kinds of skills that no computer or robot possesses (at least not yet or in the foreseeable future) such as the ability to: empathize, imagine, create, innovate, evaluate/judge, strategize, plan and – most importantly — care.  Therefore, heading up businesses in an evolving, rapidly-changing and highly complex environment requires leaders who are authentic, compassionate, and able to have meaningful communications.  That means dealing with tough issues such as diversity, inclusion and pay equity.  And it is companies with courageous leaders – able to tackle the messy stuff in a real and meaningful way – that will succeed.

Case in point.  Salesforce is huge organization with 36,000 employees, $13.3 Billion in annual revenue in 2019 and an estimated $17 Billion in revenue expected by year-end 2020.   Moreover, currently, about 83% of all Fortune 500 companies are Salesforce customers, and it was ranked by Fortune as the number one best place to work among big companies.  So when founder and CEO Marc Benioff was confronted in 2015 by Salesforce’s President and Chief People Officer Cindy Robbins about a problem of unequal pay based on gender at the company, Benioff was absolutely sure that was a mistake.

The story goes that Benioff had already it a priority to promote and retain women at Salesforce. However, he had never ordered an audit to make sure men and women were being paid equally.  Robbins suspected there was some level of disparity because parity had never been a part of the company’s pay philosophy or culture.  Benioff consented to an audit, in part, because he truly did not believe there could be a significant gender pay gap at Salesforce.  He agreed that if the audit revealed a disparity, then pay adjustments would have to be made to close the gap and ensure men and women were paid equally, regardless of what it would cost the company.  Blindly agreeing to a potentially huge expense before knowing the number requires great courage and conviction.

Salesforce’s internal audit revealed a persistent pay gap between women and men doing the same job.  And it was widespread, permeating the whole company: every division, every department, and every geographical area.  Salary adjustments were made to increase pay for any woman who was earning less than a man doing the same job, and it cost the company $3 Million to make that correction.  More than 10% of the women at Salesforce received a pay increase as a result.

Although it shocked Benioff, the audit results should not have been surprising.  After all, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, a woman earned 60 cents for every dollar made by a man in 1960.  By 2000, 40 years later, that gap had been narrowed by a dime.  And, it has taken nearly 20 more years to shave another dime off the gap.  Currently, women in the U.S. still make 20% less on average than male counterparts doing the same job.  That is exactly what the audit revealed at Salesforce.  Moreover, when male employees start a family, their earnings go up 6%, as they are perceived as needing more income to sustain a family. However, when female employees start a family, their earnings decrease 4% with each child.  The assumption is that they’re not committed and won’t be there when needed.  The unconscious bias permeates at every level and at every career stage.

When asked why a gender pay gap existed, given Salesforce’s well-documented culture of generosity and social giving, , Benioff replied, “I think it’s happening everywhere.  There’s a cultural phenomenon – a systemic bias — where women are paid less.  And the World Economic Forum says that it’ll take more than 100 years for us to pay men and women equally.”  After the audit, Salesforce’s pay philosophy and culture changed with a focus toward ensuring parity.  The company offered employees who started a family on-site daycare, generous family leave, flexible schedules, and equal pay.  And yet, a year later, a new audit at Salesforce found the same pervasive problem.  There was once again a pay gap because of all the companies that Salesforce had purchased during that year. Those companies all suffered from the same systemic gender discrimination.  Once again, Salesforce adjusted the salaries of female employees to close the gap in pay equity between men and women.

Benioff was willing to brave the hard conversations about a deeply troubling practice of discrimination in the organization he founded and led.  It was a delicate problem with profound implications in the company’s culture and ability to attract top talent.  Moreover, he was willing to address it publicly on a CBS episode of 60 Minutes, and continue working on fixing the problem when it resurfaced.  That required profound courage… to admit that the issue he did not even think was an issue was actually a systemic problem that would require constant vigilance going forward.  For business leaders, being able to confront thorny management issues — such as measuring performance for remote work, equal opportunity, the generational divide, lack of employee engagement, representation equality, high employee turnover, equal advancement and equal pay — requires vulnerability, trust, real feedback and humility.  For leaders to come to the table willing to check the ego at the door and discuss major and systemic failures requires courage.  Thankfully, courage is a skill that can be learned and honed.  After all, as Mark Twain once said, courage is resistance to fear, master of fear – not absence of fear.  That’s a skill that can be sharpened.

Next week, we will look at what it takes to develop courage in leadership.  Stay tuned.

Quote of the Week

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” Winston Churchill


© 2020, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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