The Giving of Courage: The First Duty of The CEO
by Tom FitzGerald

Investing in the courage of your people brings extraordinary, even unwarranted, corporate results. And, in monetary terms it is free;
it costs only the will to do it. And the remarkable thing is,
you don't need to have courage yourself to create it.

He was the Chief Executive. He had been so for several years. Many thought he had done well, better than the other guy for sure. Others thought otherwise, but that is the lot of all CEOs - not everyone will love them.

Certainly his personal life was showing shabby, and many knew - too many. He was finding it harder to muster support for things that needed doing. And there was talk of his retirement. "Lame duck" was mentioned, and successors talked of.

But on the day of crisis, in the time of trouble for his people, by instinct or by wisdom or by inspiration, he fulfilled the first and foremost duty of a leader:

He gave courage.

He did so quietly. He did so simply. He did so without pretence or bluster or grand rhetoric. His means were mostly silence, and just being there - standing there - before his people - in witness.

He was their Chief Executive. He gave courage. And not just to his own people but to the country, perhaps the world. In that moment he was leader to us all. And all acclaimed him. And all took courage and were stronger. And with that courage could mobilize and focus and work again.

His name was Giuliani. Rudy Giuliani. Chief Executive of New York City.

He gave courage!

We don't talk much, we men and women of business, of the needs we have for courage. It's not expected. It's not taught in B schools. We don't have the words. And it's embarrassing. After all, the absence of courage is fear or at least anxiety.

But talk about it or not, we need courage. And our people need it. In the final analysis courage is what drives our businesses. It gives us the power we need go to work, to take risk, to create, to thrive. Without it we grow weak, and our people grow uncertain. And we and they are fearful, and find it hard to decide, find it hard to invest in our own future, find it hard to communicate a vision of a prosperous future to clients so that they can invest through us - and that is selling.

I am not talking here of fierce, heroic courage needed in the face of great danger; the New York fire fighters and police showed that - in their lives, in their actions, in their deaths.

No, I am talking of a quieter kind of courage, an ordinary kind. But the kind that let Giuliani stand silently, simply, there upon the devastation - and represent us all and take symbolic responsibility for our future - and become the focus of our fear, our anger, confusion, shock - and then transmute them into resolve.

Giuliani's was a quiet courage. A mundane courage; one might almost say. The kind of courage that could be shown on almost all occasions. But one so rare, it seems, that when he showed it we were in awe of it - and him.

And we took courage.

Most of us, perhaps all of us, live our lives with feelings of uncertainty, of anxiety. It is part of the human condition. But our culture seems to cultivate it too and our educational systems seem designed to magnify it.

But when we find a company where people exhibit courage, quiet courage, the courage to listen and speak, to argue, decide and thrust ahead, we find a successful company. And we find the obverse too, for failing, unsuccessful companies seem to breed timorous people. Or is it vice versa?

Courage breeds success. Success breeds courage. But someone must begin the process of giving courage and then sustaining it. That is the duty of the leader. That is the first duty of the leader - by whatever title or position, CEO, COO, VP, manager, supervisor:

To give courage.

Giving courage is more, much more, than giving "encouragement." Encouragement, once a word of substance, has come to mean very little: perhaps a kind of vanilla cheerleading; perhaps an exhortation to do better; perhaps a kind of verbal incenting; or worse, sanction for failure.

En-Couragement means in its original sense, quite simply: the giving of courage to others; the instilling of courage in others; the creation or evocation of courage within others. A profoundly simple thing. A profoundly important thing. An incredibly rare thing too.

But who must we give courage to?

First, of course, to our people; they need it from us. Just as we need and must take courage from our leaders, so our people need it and must take it from us. And they can take it and multiply it if we give it. And they expect it; whether they know it or not, or can articulate their need or not. And if they do not get it they will resent us for not providing it.

Secondly, we must give courage to our peers, those who work with us, shoulder-to-shoulder and sometimes eyeball-to-eyeball. And to our clients. They work shoulder-to-shoulder with us too.

And lastly, we must give it to our leaders. For sometimes our leaders are afraid. Giuliani gave great courage to his leaders.

And how do we give courage?

It is no great mystery. It needs no special knowledge or cleverness or training. Just think of the best bosses you ever had and ask what did they do?

What was it that Giuliani did? What did the mayor of NY city do that imparted so much courage to us all? In simple terms, there were just seven things - but all were acts of faith and generosity:

  • First, he was there. He stood there to be seen, to be counted. That was the most important act of all.
  • Second, he assumed the burden of responsibility, however guiltless he must be.
  • Third, he bore witness. He acknowledged the enormity of the injury and the challenge.
  • Fourth, he showed emotion. Showed by voice and words and tears that he cared, that he felt.
  • Fifth, he gave rich praise to those who labored.
  • Sixth, he voiced certainty of success.
  • Lastly, he spoke to his people as a people, as a single entity, recognizing their oneness and evoking their unity.

Most of us, thank God, will never face so great a challenge. But day-by-day, hour-by-hour, as managers, we have a need, a duty, to give courage to our people, so that they may grow in strength and hope and energy. And we can do it just as Giuliani did:

  • First, we can be there. For us, in our ordinary work, it means getting out and being where the challenges of our businesses are: in the plants with our workers; on the counters with our staff; before our clients with our sales staff - wherever the challenges and our people are.
  • Second, we can take on the burden of responsibility. Even if it is the responsibility of someone else, taking responsibility is a defining act of leadership.
  • Third, we can bear witness. We can acknowledge the size and scope of the difficulties and the problems and the challenges to be overcome. And though they may be just the usual ones, they deserve to be acknowledged too.
  • Fourth, we can show emotion. Genuine, real emotion. Of happiness, sadness, friendship, confidence, worry too - human emotion. Business is driven not by cold logic but by human motivation. And that is triggered only through the heart. And if we are not demonstrative by nature, and many of us are not, then such little emotion as we can show will be seen as being all that we can do - and appreciated all the more. Charisma is not really needed.
  • Fifth, we can give praise to those who labor. Honest praise, generous praise, public praise, even though the work not be dangerous, the results not be remarkable. For work done day-by-day and every day is in itself heroic, and deserves praise, while the praised still live and can be heartened.
  • Sixth, we can voice certainty of success. The need our people have for reassurance is as least as great as ours. And, let's admit it, ours is great.
  • Lastly, we can speak to our people as a unit, as belonging to a single entity (not just one-on-one, though that is important too) and evoking that unity, recognizing the oneness of the group and its common cause.

Rarely in our lives are we as managers required to show great physical courage. But, day-by-day, as managers, as chief executives of our companies, whatever their size, whatever their position within larger organizations, we have the duty to show the mundane kind of courage, the kind that Giuliani showed.

The kind that is unpretentious, that is open, honest and without shame. The kind that says, "Here I stand, God help me; I take responsibility; and I need help; and sacrifice."

The kind that says, "There is a future; there is hope; we will win."

Tom FitzGerald is a bottom-line oriented, consulting management engineer, who specializes in effecting major improvements in profitability, performance and growth. He
has worked with CEOs and COOs of more than 200 organizations in the US, Canada and Europe, ranging in size from start-up to Fortune Five Hundred.  By education, a physicist.  By birth, Irish.  By instinct and experience, a business catalyst.  Contact FitzGerald Associates here:

Index of articles in The CEO Refresher by Tom FitzGerald | Many more articles on Leading Change, Creative Leadership, Executive Performance and Performance Improvement
in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2002 FitzGerald Associates. All rights reserved.

Current Issue - Archives - CEO Links - News - Conferences - Recommended Reading