I was just reminded how courage and leadership are inextricably linked. I was with a CEO last week who stood in front of his company and asked:
“Raise your hand if you would do what is right, if you had to take a 50% pay cut?”
“Raise your hand if you would do what is right, if it were to put you personally at risk?”
“Raise your hand if you would do what is right, if it were to put your family at risk?”
With each question, the number of hands raised diminished. He then said,
“I can answer ‘yes’ to each of those questions during my time here as CEO.”
And he shared a heroine story about a situation that required him to chose between doing what was right vs. what was expedient; a decision he was forced to make that shoved personal gains aside for the greater good of others. He talked about sacrifice and serving others, in the face of significant personal risk, and he shared how the entire company came out the other end in such a better place, with strengthened culture and values. He was talking about a beautiful, human culture. It was incredible to hear this man talk about sacrifice, choices, taking care of others vs. corporate talk around profits, short term ROI, share holder value, and so on.
The lesson for me is how courageous leadership is linked to whether or not we have a system of values – a culture that truly practices its values comes from leaders who have the courage to do what is right.
To juxtapose, I spent time with a former senior executive of BP. He asked me, “Do you know who Lord Browne is?”
Lord John Browne was the former CEO of BP from 1995 – 2007. He presided over the company during the period in which there was hyper-focus on share holder value, quarterly profits, and heavy cost cutting. Early in his tenure, the stock climb from $25 to $75. And the story I heard from this executive was how everything; every single decision in the Board Room was based on immediate ROI and quarterly targets — the effects were lay offs, cheaper, faster, and so on. It was a race towards everything being process-tized, mechanized, and ROI’d, and this led to massive safety violations that were totally ignored.
Browne is described by journalist and author Tom Bower as responsible for a “ruthless” program of cost-cutting at BP that compromised safety, and thus the Leader most responsible for a string of major accidents including the Texas City Refinery explosion (2005) and worse, the Deepwater Horizon explosion (2010).
I wanted to better understand this. How can this happen? How can a Leader operate from such a myopic, inhumane position?
It turns out that 3 years before the Deepwater Horizon explosion, Lord Browne resigned in controversial circumstances after a judge found he had lied in court about the details of a personal relationship. He later disclosed being “terrified” that his sexuality would be revealed publicly.
Here is a leader with immense power – the ability to affect people’s lives on mass scale, able to kill people, and destroy our environment. And yet, this very man with that immense power was unable to publicly live and disclose who he was. And I wondered if not having the courage to live who we truly are impairs the decisions we chose to make.
To me, Lord Browne is the juxtaposition to the Courageous Leadership I had witnessed last week, where I saw someone doing the right thing in the face of a pay cut, no short term gain, and potential personal risk.
We have a courage epidemic in Corporate Leadership.
The antidote to this courage epidemic begins with us all viewing ourselves as Leaders. And being a Leader starts with having the courage to be who we are. It’s then, that we have the conviction to know what it is we stand for and what we believe in. And that becomes the nutrients to fuel relationships and togetherness, which then fosters culture and values.
Courage is contagious.
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