With proper training, almost anyone willing can recognize, harness, and actualize courage in their everyday lives—and, subsequently, in their businesses. Greek philosopher Aristotle considered courage to be the very first virtue because it makes all other virtues possible. To be courageous, there must first be a commitment to willingness. Or, to say it more bluntly, courage is a prerequisite for everything else that comes before you. When it comes to having difficult, but necessary conversations, you need courage. When it comes time to challenge the norms of the business, again, it takes a call for courage. You have to want to be better. And that’s not always a walk in the park. We often feel like salmon swimming up stream when we’re pushing for bolder thinking across our organizations.
If we’re going to be proactive with courage in business, we should first establish a practical definition of courage we can all agree on. Since I’m not a fan of the existing dictionary definition of courage—which lacks practicality and utility—I created my own which was the fire starter to my book Return on Courage: A Business Playbook for Courageous Change.
Knowledge, faith, and action are the matchstick, tinder, and wood that work together to form the fire that is courage. The sum of these parts—and it must include all of them—makes up courage.
Courage always starts with knowledge. Obtaining knowledge is the true differentiator between doing something careless and embarking on something boldly calculated. It surely will be easier for you to take on a risk if you are educated on the topic you need to be courageous about.
Since you’re never going to be able to gather all the available knowledge on a given topic (sorry data people), at some point, you have to rely on that belief system of yours that we’ll call faith. And once you build that faith, mixed in with just enough acquired knowledge, then it’s time to do something about it. This is when it’s time to take action.
Gathering knowledge, building faith, and then taking no action is paralysis. We’ve all been in situations where we knew what we needed to do but, for some unknown reason, didn’t pull the trigger.
Having faith and then taking action without proper knowledge is reckless. We’re back to jumping out of a plane without a parachute. Remember, courage always starts with obtaining wisdom.
Gathering knowledge then taking action without having faith is simply too safe. This is status quo. If you don’t feel a bit of nervousness on the inside, in a world saturated with choice, it’s not enough. Acquiring knowledge, building faith, and, finally, taking action is courage.
The more you grow your knowledge, and the more you grow your faith, the more courageous an action you should take. It’s almost like having an inside scoop on how a stock is going to perform. When knowledge, faith, and action are all in place, and when intuition suggests they work together in harmony, you’re on your way.
Now that we’ve got a sense of what is and isn’t courage, the following sections delve into the various elements that help to explain where we need to be proactive with our courage across our business. Why, you ask? Because 52% of the Fortune 500 will be gone in a decade and an expected 9,000 brands are expected to carousel on and off the Fortune 500 list over the next six decades. Whether we like it or not, change happens. And if you are going to proactively drive change forward and unlock change in your organization, you’ll need proactive courage to do so.
In a 2015 U.S. Innovation study by the management consulting company Accenture, American executives and managers were asked about their companies’ attitudes toward innovation. Sixty percent agreed or strongly agreed that their organization struggled to learn from past mistakes. More than 70 percent agreed or strongly agreed that opportunities to harness underdeveloped areas died because companies couldn’t find an internal home to nurture them. This makes it incredibly difficult to tip toe into the innovation space when the cards are stacked against. No doubt, change is hard—but the hardships of not addressing change will be far harder. So where to start? How about by not waiting on a true threat that could take your business down. Most companies are reactive or inactive when it comes to fighting futuristic business fears. The onus is on the day-to-day so long term thinking takes a back row seat. It’s time to flip that thinking. Every company should put in the hard work now to proactively identify a potential fear for the business. Not just because fear leads to growth but because it’s better for you to take down that fear before it takes down you. Exposing then addressing that fear forces examination and an action plan. It can kick-start innovation. It can help you fight your way back to relevancy. That fear can be flipped into your friend.
The “F” word is a no no across most businesses. The “F” word I’m talking about is failure. It’s time we replaced that word with the “E” word: Experiments. Creating process and infrastructure to create learning experiments are an excellent way for an organization to acquire knowledge. Many office experiments end up being perceived as failures when they are anything but. These less-than-perfect experiences gathered over a period of time help us shape how we approach the next, new innovation. Rather than placing all-or-nothing bets on the future, companies can create Experimental Task Forces (ETFs) whose role is to unearth revenue-generating opportunities before your competitors do. Wherever you need courage the most is where you should employ your ETF. Where most of your company remains ground soldiers, this ETF—a mission-focused internal “special forces” squad—gets the time, space, and budget to tackle possible future problems.
What business am I in? The creative-business business. Most business leaders don’t grasp how transformational creativity can be to their bottom line, while most creatives don’t have a clue about how their special sauce can drastically impact business. When it comes to creativity itself, I am less impressed when creative projects are showered with endless resources. Often the best creative ideas come when there’s constraint. One of the observations I try to bring forward in my book Return On Courage: A Business Playbook For Courageous Change is that courage is undoubtedly a journey word. We need to stay disciplined, focused and courageous as we tinker with our creativity in the messy middle of an initiative. Leaders, now is your time to inspire your team to creatively lean into this newfound challenge. Really, think through what this next new world needs—and consider how you can courageously contribute in a meaningful, lasting way that could change the game (and your business) forever. Creativity is the answer to making a magical culture internally and a meaningful brand or experience externally.
My personal mantra in life? I’m patiently relentless. Once I commit to a cause, I’m “all in” and at peace in pursuing that life calling. An example of this is our “rally cry in our why” purpose at Courageous: the liberation business. When companies are 1) stuck, 2) stale, 3) scared, or 4) slow, they can turn to us to help liberate their leaders, teams, ideas and thinking forward. Being patiently relentless is a commitment to the journey, and it sets an expectation of how long that journey will take. Sometimes you have to proactively commit to whatever hardships will come your way and confront that difficulty with the hope that it will lead to future triumph. Great leaders and teams show a resilient commitment to stay the course in pursuit of success, through thick and thin. Once you willingly commit, you need to make sure you have a solid foundation and surround yourself with a loyal support system that not only believes in the cause but will help you get through whatever strife comes your way.
Personal risk makes it hard for us to speak our minds. It’s especially difficult to put our reputation on the line once you’ve received approval from superiors on a proposed change. What we need to remember is that, like the stock market, life fluctuates. What was the right decision for your business a month ago may not be the right one today. There is always new information to consider as the business landscape is evolving in real time. This doesn’t mean we should be altering our strategy every time the wind blows. It means we should be open to those truths by looking for the changes around us and granting our people leeway to alert us of those changing truths as well. Honest, agile communication is the key. Even if you reached consensus just weeks earlier, if you believe changing your game plan is the right thing to do, then you should bring it to your team’s attention. Truth is, we need to put in the time to over communicate in this new pandemic world. One of the ways we do so is by creating a month survey that our clients grade us on (and we grade them on). We use our four core values of 1) Sacrifice, 2) Magic, 3) Speed, 4) Change and we grade each other on a 1 to 5 scale. This is a process that forces hard conversations and communication. It also makes sure that the relationship doesn’t slide too much where it gets to a point beyond repair.
We talk to tears about knowing our “why” in society; not much on the underrated “how.” If you like the above, and you wanted a step-by-step process on how to unlock courage in your company, pick up Return On Courage at Amazon. Or, reach out direct and I’m happy to share more about the steps we would take to transforming you into a Courage Brand®.
Ryan Berman is an author, keynote speaker and the founder of Courageous; a create-the-change company that builds and leads Courage Brands®. Ryan has helped install courage in the stories and culture at Google, Kellogg’s Europe, charity: water, Major League Baseball, Snapchat, Johnson & Johnson, Cereal Partners Worldwide and US Ski & Snowboard. His book ‘Return on Courage’ shows how during these courage deficient times, courage is a competitive advantage for those leaders who choose to unlock it. Berman also has his own altruistic Courage Brand called Sock Problems: a sock company that “socks” different problems in the world.