The 4 types of corporate courage

14 October 2015 -


Having the courage to take calculated risks is a fundamental talent of a successful manager. Here, guest blogger Adrian Furnham explores the multi-faceted world of courage and how managers need to tick all the boxes to drive their business forward

Professor Adrian Furnham

Fortune favours the brave, particularly in business. Or does it? Certainly cowardice, timidity and weakness in the face of adversity are bedfellows of failure.

Courageous leaders inspire courage in others: courage to stand up to bullies and injustice; courage to seize the day; courage to go the extra mile. Equally and self-evidently, the cowardly discourages.

Some organisations have ‘courage’ as a competency. As something they select in others. Possibly as something they think or hope they can develop or train. But it is important to distinguish between the various types of courage.

Interpersonal Courage

This is perhaps the most important type in business. At the management level it involves confronting poor performers, it means standing up to bullies. Every organisation has a number of well-dug-in underperformers who have learnt a range of ways to avoid being chastised or removed from their jobs. They consult doctors, lawyers, HR specialists and union representatives to obtain notes, letters and other threatening mechanisms to excuse their poor performance. Some simply do emotional outbursts, accusing managers of a range of “isms” that are likely to put off anyone... Racism, sexism, ageism, heightism but never performance-ism. Or they may try the phobias: homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia.

It is easier to back down, back away from these individuals, than confront them. But left alone they grow. They are joined by others who learn the skills, the attitudes and devious devices of the aggressive underperformer.

The single best predictor of managers’ success in some organisations is their willingness, ability and courage to confront others assertively and constructively. Often it is big, strong, chaps who find this form of courage the hardest.

It’s also the courage to deliver other difficult messages. Ever had the body odour problem and tried to let the offender know that. Or let go the older worker who is no longer really up to it. Not nice. Not easy. It takes a mixture of skill and courage.

Risk Taking Courage

Business is about taking calculated risks. This involves analysis first, courage second. Nearly every successful entrepreneur failed several times before they succeeded. They took a punt, invested a lot….and failed.

Some people are simply too cautious to really succeed. They may suffer analysis paralysis. They worry about failure; they commit insufficient resources or energy to ensure success.

The British are said to be brilliant inventors but hopeless exploiters of these ideas. Scientists are often cautious analytic people.

There are many reasons why businesses fail or simply fail to thrive. One is that senior managers can’t or won’t take risks with new products, ideas, markets. They wait for others, who always win in the end. Risk taking is part intellectual, part emotional. It’s acting on imperfect information, carefully weighed. The cautious and cowardly wait too long until they are certain, and that, in business, is too late.

Moral Courage

Although the very idea of business ethics is essentially oxymoronic for many, all managers need to know the difference between right and wrong. Of course things can be fudged, as in the famous phrase ‘tax evoision’. And yes there are different moral codes. There is also that grey area between what is called the spirit and the letter of the law.

Senior managers have power and privileges and with them comes temptation. Temptations that are so easy to give in to. Promoting favourites or lovers; fudging documents or announcements by telling half truths; increasing one’s own salary. The New York Times recently printed a list of CEOs who were in prison. All had seriously transgressed the law. Were they psychopathic, immoral imbeciles or simply not courageous enough to stand up to moral temptation?

There are many pressures on business people sometimes dictated by what they see as demanding and greedy shareholders. And sometimes they have to resist the pressures to do something immoral (even amoral) or illegal to save their skin or make them look good.

Moral courage is admirable and rare. And not to be confused with self-righteous fundamentalism in the marketplace, or pompous trumpeting about ethical this and that. That is often little more than cleverly exploiting the current zeitgeist to save the planet.

Physical Courage

Many great leaders have shown immense physical courage and not only military leaders. Explorers like Scott and Shackleton are good examples. Space travellers, doctors in wars, even politicians have stood up to the unknown, the hostile crowd, the aggressive bully.

Physical courage is about endurance and defiance. It is about pushing yourself when you feel there is little left to give. It’s about leading from the front.

So courage is multi-faceted. Much exists to discourage us from being courageous from health and safety obsessionality, to fear of failure and looking foolish. But from a management perspective it seems almost foolhardy not to look out for signs of all four facets in our top managers and leaders.

Adrian Furnham is a business psychologist and author of 80 books and 1,000 scientific papers. He is an adjunct professor at the Norwegian Business School. Find his website here.

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