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When we think of courage, we usually think of political, military, or religious leaders. People who risked and dared to do what was right in the face of great challenges or personal or professional peril. For example, we might think of Abraham Lincoln, who led the U.S. through a Civil War and dared to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. But we don’t usually think of business leaders as being particularly brave or courageous. And yet they must take risks and make calculated decisions every day with the aim of bringing out the very best in both people and processes. It takes a certain intrepid, plucky spirit to guide a business, whether it is a scrappy startup or a multi-national conglomerate.
Indeed, courage is a main differentiator between a good manager and a great leader. For businesses, it is a game change. According to Forbes, “Courageous leaders take risks that may go against the grain of their organizations. They make decisions with the potential for revolutionary change in their markets. Their boldness inspires their teams, energizes customers, and positions their companies as leaders in societal change.”
So can a manager develop the courage in order to become a great leader? Can courage be taught? Can it be learned? And for those who need to boost their courage, can it be developed and honed? The simple answer is yes, but not in the traditional way that other skills are acquired. It is gained through multiple experiences involving personal risk-taking.
In business, courageous action is about taking calculated risks that further the whole organization, not just the bottom line. People who become good leaders are much more inclined / willing to make bold decisions and take unprecedented or unexpected actions, while strengthening their chance of success through careful reflection and planning. Business courage is not an inborn characteristic, but rather a skill acquired through decision-making processes that improves with practice… with experience. So, most great business leaders learn how to make high-risk decisions through practice. And they become better and better at it over time…. often many decades. Often, they are able to watch other great leaders firsthand and learn what courage looks like in action.
These individuals hone their ability to make what has been referred to as ‘courage calculation’: a process for increasing success by taking smart chances while avoiding rash, unproductive, or irrational behavior. To do this, they must:
- set primary and secondary goals;
- determine the importance of achieving those goals and ensure they align with the values;
- tip the power balance in their favor;
- weigh the risks against the benefits;
- select the proper time for action; and
- develop contingency plans.
Katherine Graham, Courageous Leader of The Washington Post
Case in point. Katherine Meyer aka Katherine Graham, CEO of The Washington Post for many years, was a shining example of courage in leadership. Meyer’s family was wealthy and she grew up privileged. Notwithstanding, she began to develop her courage early in life. She graduated from the University of Chicago in 1938 with a degree in Journalism, which was an unusual career path for women at that time. Her father had urged her to launch her career by working for The Washington Post, the regional newspaper he’d purchased five years earlier. At that time, young women rarely contradicted their parents’ political views or career guidance. But, Katherine was different. Not like her deeply conservative parents, she sought diversity and was open to intellectual discourse and progressive ideas. And, when her father offered her a job after college, she refused it and instead moved to San Francisco to work on the News as a reporter for $25 a week. It was her first bold move, if somewhat short-lived. Just seven months later, she accepted father’s offer of a $4 per week raise to work for the Post. Still, it was her first act in sharpening her courage skills.
By 1940, Katherine Meyer married Philip Graham. In 1948, Phillip and Katherine Graham bought The Washington Post from her father. For a time, Katherine retired from work life to have a family. But in 1963, Philip Graham, who suffered from bipolar disorder, committed suicide. Despite her anguish, Katherine was forced to take the helm as CEO of The Washington Post. It was hard to do at a time when there were few women leading major companies. She had never led a company nor wanted that role.
As a new CEO, Katherine was patronized and intimidated by her male employees. But slowly, over time, Graham gained confidence and began to exert executive authority. Her first step was to set goals. Her primary goal was to remake the Post into a respected, world-class newspaper. Her secondary goal was to ensure that The Post dared to research and report the important truths of the day.
Over time, Katherine developed a set of values based on who she was and what she stood for. She had developed high standards and she was willing to take bold steps to ensure those high standards were maintained. Those standards and her courage was put to the test in 1971. It came to light that a study, dubbed The Pentagon Papers, revealed the government’s deep deception about the war in Vietnam dating back more than two decades. A copy of the Pentagon Papers, which the NY Times had not been allowed to publish, surfaced at The Washington Post. There was great pressure from government, business, and even internally for The Post not to publish the Pentagon Papers. And, with The Post preparing for a public stock offering, it was terrible time to take a big, daring risk.
To assess whether the risk was worth taking, Katherine asked question after question. Just how important was it for her to achieve her goals of elevating the paper’s status and reporting truthfully the issues of the day? If she didn’t do something about the current state of affairs, would The Washington Post suffer in its reputation? Would her ability to lead be derailed by taking the risk of publishing The Pentagon Papers? Would she be able to look at herself in the mirror if she didn’t act? Did the situation call for immediate, high-profile action or could something more nuanced and less risky be done instead? She had to consider if publishing The Pentagon Papers meant she was squandering political capital on a low-priority issue or spending it wisely on a high-priority one.
Katherine courageously chose to follow her heart, goals and values and publish The Pentagon Papers; an extremely controversial move. The Editorial team of the Washing Post stood behind her decision to publish. She refused to play it safe, dodge discomfort or hedge her bets. Holding herself accountable for her decisions, she endured the temporary discomfort of outside pressures and the potential for failure. She did all this even as the Nixon administration made threats and the company’s stock dropped. The Washington Post even went before the Supreme Court of the U.S. to defend its right to publish and won.
As the CEO of the Washington Post, Katherine was given an opportunity to test her courage, and she did not allow self-doubt to keep her from responding. She acted bravely not because she was unafraid. She simply did not let fear or discomfort keep her from making a bold decision. She kept asking questions until she was able to assess the situation, and tap into her courage, in order to do what was right and achieve her goals. Nixon’s resignation in 1974 vindicated Katherine Graham’s decision. In doing so, she developed more courage and ability to gauge when to take calculated risks. And Katherine’s decision and ability to show courage under fire profoundly elevated the Post’s stature.
Katherine Graham’s courage allowed her to become a change agent for The Washington Post. By taking calculated risks, she became a legendary CEO. In 2000, she was one of only three women who ran Fortune 500 companies. And yet, in her Pulitzer Prize winning autobiography, Personal History, she admitted that she had experienced self-doubt about her decision to run the Watergate story. The fact that she weighed the risks and benefits and selected the proper time for action is what allowed her to demonstrate courage thereby further honing her courage skills.
While most people are not faced with such immensely world-changing decisions as whether to reveal government documents or not, every business leader today is facing fairly complex, challenging and harrowing decisions about leading for now and for the future. It requires courage, a skill that can only be developed by taking calculated risks and honing that courage skill over time. So use every opportunity to tap into courage in leadership. With each time, it will hone the ability be even more courageous in future decisions.
Quote of the Week
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” Nelson Mandela
© 2020, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.