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The Four Tenets of Individual Courage

02/03/2014 08:50 am ET | Updated Apr 05, 2014

Following the collapse of the airline industry over a decade ago, the trend of mass job-cutting was dominant. Southwest Airlines CEO James Parker went against this and announced that he would not cut jobs and instead initiate a profit-sharing program for employees.

This stands as a prime example of an individual bucking the trend of his industry and showing up differently. This is courage.

English author Samuel Johnson famously said, "Courage is the greatest of all virtues, because if you haven't courage, you may not have an opportunity to use any of the others."

It is the duality of individual-initiated and business-led courage that creates an optimal formula for progress. The courage to identify a pivot, and the freedom to be able to see that change through, is what's required to show up differently. And if you're lucky, like I am, that is exactly the culture of the company you work for. If you have that freedom, here are my recommendations to be courageous within it.

Four Tenants of Individual Courage

  1. Courage to Trust. Trusting the ideas of your colleagues is a crucial step. Courage is listening when the most junior person in the room raises his or her hand. Most great ideas don't just come from the executive suite but from the people who are fighting daily on the front-line to propel the company forward. When Spencer Silver at 3M invented the Post-It note in 1968, senior management were consistent in their dismissal of the idea. It wasn't until nine years later when a more senior manager began to trust Silver's conviction that he persuaded the firm to put their marketing might behind the Post-It and help make it flourish. You know the rest of this story.
  2. Courage to Ask Why. Let me ask you: Why do you work the way you do? Is it because that's the way it has always been done? Have you ever asked, "Can I do it radically different and possibly better?" Do you have the support of your manager and company to allow "disruption" to be a positive word and not something to run away from? "No" is not a dirty word. "No" is the strongest and most radical statement you will ever hear in the workplace. It takes courage to stand up and say that the plan is wrong, the objectives are not going to be met and that there is a better way. I didn't understand how my firm calculated influence - sure, I understood the method, but I didn't believe the arithmetic. When I told my boss that I thought the method was misguided, he didn't tell me get on with the job I was employed to do; he encouraged me to take my idea as far as it could go. The result was recognized by Time magazine as one of the top 10 Twitter moments of 2010 and, more importantly, drastically changed our company's approach. Showing up differently isn't just the courage to ask, it's the determination to go to the ledge (or even over).
  3. Courage to Disagree. Alfred Sloan (president, chairman and CEO General Motors from 1923 to 1956) said, "Gentlemen, I take it that we are all in complete agreement on the decision we've just made. Then, I propose we postpone further discussion, to give ourselves time to develop disagreement - and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about." Sloan's view was that if everyone was in unanimous agreement, he would postpone decision-making to give his team opportunity to think about the advantages and disadvantages in different ways. Sloan's brilliance here wasn't just his patience, but his creation of a culture that required opposition. Now more than ever, we must expect disruption. If everyone in the room is always in agreement, you can plan on those people being disrupted.
  4. Courage to Take Action. How often have you seen failure due to indecision, procrastination and lack of trying? It is easy to put off a decision but incredibly difficult to be firm and make one. Ikea's Sustainability Director wanted to encourage use of LED light bulbs. How did he make this happen? He made the decision to enforce his entire supply chain and retail outlets to only use them. His decision brought about change as only action can.

Courage is the catalyst for change.

American pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878 - 1969) once said, "The world is moving so fast these days that the man who says that it can't be done is generally interrupted by someone doing it." The companies that have fallen victim to Fosdick's prophecy are too vast to count.

It was important to be courageous in Fosdick's day. It is critical to be courageous now.