Leadership, Bravery and Courage

It’s important to have a concept when thinking about concepts such as this, to delineate between what in statistics and poker they call the short term (but which we might normally refer to as the journey or the means) and the long term (which we might otherwise call the destination or the end).

My favourite speech about courage in the movies is that from Saving Private Ryan, where Tom Hanks and Tom Sizemore are holed up in a church with their platoon and discuss making decisions which send soldiers to their deaths. “Sure I’ve sent guys to their deaths” says Hanks’ Captain Miller “but I figure that for every kid that died we’ve saved what ten, a hundred lives?” Short term sacrifice for long term gain.

Someone who sent many more young men to their deaths in order to save many more in the long term embraced such sacrifice in all areas of his life besides war. Born in 1809 to two uneducated farmers in a one-room log cabin in Kentucky, he went on to fail in business by the age of 22. He was then defeated for Legislature by 23 and had his second business failure the next year. Three years after that he had a nervous breakdown and was confined to bed for six months. He was defeated for Speaker in 1838. Defeated for Congress in 1848. Defeated for Senate in 1855. Defeated for Vice President 1856. Defeated for Senate in 1858. And finally elected President of the United States in 1860. That man was Abraham Lincoln. And his Long Term was a lifetime. But he was successful in it.

The need for courage in the short term is probably best exemplified by considering a successful sports team like the 2003 World Cup-winning England Rugby Team populated by guys, many of whom had captained the side at one time or another, all of whom abhorred failure.

In my work with a couple of them, specifically Matt Dawson and Lawrence Dallaglio, we were initially at a loss to establish in what way they embraced short term failure at all. But the answer was actually obvious: for an endeavour like theirs winning each game becomes the long term goal, failure to achieve which is not countenanced. But in order to achieve that, failure needed to be embraced much more than usual in the short term – on the training ground.

The whole point of effective training in fact is to put an individual or a team mentally, emotionally or physically under enough stress that it needs to fail until it succeeds in achieving the new more demanding goal. Muscles literally break before recovering and growing stronger in the aftermath.

The problem facing corporations at the moment is that while they pay lip service to the idea of failing in the short term, when push comes to shove and shareholders have to be reported to every three months, it is impossible to implement.

The problem with the inability to embrace failure is that if a company claims to want to be a world leader in its field it is effectively playing the part of a team who wants to win the world cup but not actually train before the big game. Admittedly corporate life is more continuous than sporting life and it is impossible to focus on individual events and periods of time in quite the same way but the basic principle remains: if growth and improvement come from raising the bar to a point where people initially cannot carry it then people’s inability to admit or prepare for failure in a corporate context is a massive handicap.

Posted 03:35pm by Caspar and filed in Decision Making, Leadership