Cultivating Professional Bravery

JOHN McCain, onetime prisoner of war, has defined courage as a brief, singular occurrence: "that rare moment of unity between conscience, fear, and action, when something deep within us (love, honour, duty etc.) fires our resolve."

This definition depicts an image of a hero who, instinctively, spontaneously, and against all odds, suddenly, takes charge and stands up for virtue.

Certainly, courage is sometimes a matter of life and death. But Prof Kathleen Reardon of the University of Southern California believes that in business, courageous action is really a special kind of calculated risk taking. People who become good leaders have a greater than- average willingness to make bold moves, but they strengthen their chances of success and avoid career suicide through careful deliberation and preparation.

Learning to take an intelligent gamble requires understanding of what Prof Reardon calls the "courage calculation:" a method of making success more likely while avoiding cash, unproductive, or irrational behavior. She identifies six discrete processes that make up the courage calculation: setting primary and secondary goals; determining the importance of achieving them; tipping the power balance in your favor; weighing risks against benefits; selecting the proper time for action; and developing contingency plans.


Setting Goals: The first component of the courage calculation answers these question: What does success look like in this high-risk situation? Is it obtainable? If my primary goal is organizational, does it defend or advance my company's or team's principles and values? If my primary goal is personal, does it derive solely from my career ambitions or also from a desire for my organization's or even society's greater good? If cannot meet my primary goal, what is 'my second any goal?

Whether primary or secondary, your goals should be reasonably within reach not some grandiose ambitions: A primary goal that serves the organization might be either to rescue a good employee or to prevent the boss from acting on faulty information. A second organizational goal might be apprise the boss of an "okukuseku" in the company. A primary goal that serves you personally might be to receive some behind-the-scenes credit for helping the employee. A second personal goal might be to feel that you did something for the greater good.

Determining Your' Goals' Importance. The second component of the courage action addresses these questions: Just how important is it that you achieve your goal or goals? If you don’t do something about the current state of affairs, will your company suffer? Will your career be derailed? Will you be able to look yourself in the mirror? Does the situation call for immediate, high-profile action or something less risky? Courage is not about squandering political capital on low priority issues.

To distinguish such squandering from constructive risk, Prof Reardon assigns importance at' three levels. On the lowest rung of her risk-taking ladder are issues about which people do not feel strongly, though they may prefer a particular outcome and may say so in a low-risk situation.


Middle-rung issues are those about which an opinion is strong but doesn't involve higher values; feelings may change based on new information. At the top of the ladder are, 'What she calls "spear in the sand" issues. These are perceived to rest on morals or values for which people are willing to take a stand and fight.

Tipping the Power Balance: People often assume that power in corporation is a simple matter of position on the organizational chart. In attempting to please those above them, many people choose never to take a stand. But in reality, even those in top management give power to anyone on whom they are dependent whether for respect. Advice, friendship, appreciation, or network affiliations. Seen this way, Prof Reardon believes that, power is something over which we really have some considerable control. By establishing relationships with those around you,

she advises, you sway over people who otherwise hold sway over you. This gives you a broader base from which to make bold moves.
Weighing Risks and Benefits: This component of the courage calculation focuses on tradeoffs. Who stands to win? Who stands to lose?

What are the chances that your reputation will be tarnished beyond repair if you go forward?

Will you lose respect or your job? Cause others to lose theirs?

Delay your opportunity for promotion? Other trade-offs deal with the quality of the action and the strategy involved. Are your goals better served if you act in a direct forceful way or if you take an indirect approach?

Do your calculations well before you commit a "career suicide."

Selecting the Right Time: Desmond Tutu of South Africa has described good leaders as having an uncanny sense of timing. "The real leader, he admonishes, "knows when to make concessions, when to compromise, when to employ the art of losing the battle in order to win the war."


It can be argued that when someone is confronted by a situation that requires courage, the question of timing should be irrelevant. We assume that in spear-in-the-sand situations; when much is at stake and emotions are" running high, brave people don't hesitate to act. This may be true in emergency situations, but a single minded rush to action is usually foolish, says Prof Reardon.

Although emotion is always in the mix, and may even be an asset when making a courageous move, the following questions can help in logically calculating whether the time is right: Whyam I pursuing this now? Am I contemplating a considered action or an impulsive one? How long would it take to become better prepared? Is that too long? What are the pros and cons of waiting a day, two days, a week or more? Am I emotionally and mentally prepared to take this risk?

Spending too much time on any or all of these questions could lead to lost opportunity for courage. At the same time, too little consideration may result in overly hasty leap. It is important to remember that courageous action in business is for the most part deliberate. Real emergencies are rare. Time may well be on your side.

Developing Contingency 'Plans: Faced with having to take a risk, most people make only one attempt: they knock on the front door, and if response is not forthcoming, they give up and go away. Those who accomplish their primary and secondary goals try knocking at the back door, tapping at a window, or even returning a second time.

Winning in risky situations often requires being what you haven't been, thinking as you haven't thought, and acting as you haven't acted. The better developed your contingency plans are, the likelier it is you will achieve your primary and secondary goals. But before deciding how to proceed, it is important to account for possible failure. If you don't meet your objective, what then? Will you lose credibility? Will you think about resigning? If not, how might you salvage your job or reputation? Can failure be converted into something positive?

Contingency planning is really about resourcefulness. People who take bold risks and succeed are versatile thinkers; they ready themselves with alternative routes. Courageous managers prepare themselves for any eventuality, including worst case scenarios.

Eventually, courage in business rests on priorities that serve a personal, an organizational, or a societal philosophy. When this philosophy is but tressed by clear, obtainable primary and secondary goals, an evaluation of their importance, a favorable power base, a careful assessment of risks versus benefits, appropriate timing, and well-developed contingency plans, managers are better empowered to make bold moves that serve their organizations, their careers, and their own sense of personal worth.

Source: Ghanaian Times