By now you know that Edward Snowden, a 29 year old technical contractor for the CIA, leaked confidential information to the worldwide press late last week claiming that the government had the authority "...to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the President, if I had a personal e-mail." He did so, he said, because he had seen "abuses"--the framework for an "architecture of oppression"--and had come to "realize that these things have to be decided by the public, not someone who is hired by the government." And now look at him: on the run, a wanted man, his life perhaps threatened. And for what?
Call him what you want: A traitor. A turncoat. A hero. A whistleblower. A conspirator. But no one can deny one thing: he's brave as hell. Whatever his reasons for leaking this information he's put his neck out there for a cause he believes. You're a business leader right? An owner, an employer, a senior manager. People look up to you. You deal with hard questions and moral issues every day. And many pale in comparison to what Snowden is dealing with right now. So ask yourself this question: are you that brave? Are you willing to do the same as he did for your own principles and beliefs?
Are you brave enough to tell a large, profitable customer when he's wrong? Everyone has those nightmare accounts. The guys that call you at home. That treat your employees poorly. That pay their bills late and haggle with you at every turn. That make unnecessary demands and complain about your products and services. But they keep buying and the money is good. You know there are plenty of better customers out there who would be more pleasant and likely more profitable to work with. Are you brave enough to get rid of the bad one so that you can have the time and resources to nurture the better ones?
Are you courageous enough to walk away from that prospective big project because you know in your heart it's not the right one? I'm dealing with this dilemma right now - a 100 user potential software implementation with a client who I know in my heart doesn't have enough internal resources to get the job done correctly and will more than likely be wasting their money. Am I courageous enough to tell them this? To insist they hire a qualified project manager internally at a cost that could likely break the deal or send them running to a competitor? Am I thinking of their best interests? Or mine? And what if that prospective client has different values from you? Say they operate in an industry or with ethics that are at crosshairs with yours. But, boy that job is enticing. What do you do?
Do you have the guts to sit down for that difficult conversation with your difficult employee? The one who dresses inappropriately, has bad hygiene or is disruptive in the office? Let's say this "bad" employee is actually a good producer, one of your best salespeople, or talented on the phone with customers. It will cost a fortune to replace her. You may even be facing a lawsuit. Can you look that person in the eye and tell her to change the way she dresses, take a shower or behave? Do you have the guts to write that person up, warn her and ultimately fire her if she doesn't turn things around?
Do you have the resolve to make big changes in your business despite the pain that it may cause? This is how so many business owners survived the last recession. They laid-off good, hardworking, valuable people in order to save the jobs of those who remained. After working so hard for so many years to build up a nice operation they were forced to take a step back to a prior decade through cost cuts and shutdowns in order to survive. They scrapped beloved business ventures and discontinued product lines that were once thought to be their ticket to prosperity because things, well, things just didn't work out as planned. They had the tenacity, the resolution, the determination to put aside their emotions and make difficult, disruptive decisions because it was the right thing to do for their companies. Do you have that kind of resolve?
Are you daring enough to defy the "experts" in your life? You know who they are: the tech guys who insist you must hire them to replace your servers this year or face calamitous consequences. The accountant who wants you to take the safest possible road with the tax treatment of a large transaction instead of being more aggressive and saving more money...but potentially opening yourself up to more scrutiny from the authorities. The insurance agent who warns you that no amount of coverage is enough coverage and wants you to buy more and more in case...God forbid...disaster strikes. You know these experts are just doing their jobs. But you also know they have their own agendas too. And sometimes those agendas may not exactly be in your best interests. But do you have the courage to defy them and take your own course? They're the experts, right?
Are you bold enough to get up every morning, no matter what, and come to work with a smile on your face and the same level of determination, energy and optimism that you had five or ten years ago? Your people are looking at you for leadership. They don't need to know about that big job that was lost, the competitor who's breathing down your neck, the tuition bills you have due, the upcoming visit from that state auditor who just wanted to "say hello" and that piece of equipment in the shop that's showing signs of (finally) giving up the ghost but will need to be replaced and you're not sure there's enough cash to pay for a new machine. Can you put aside these pressures, your weariness, the ache in your back, the lack of time you spent with your family over the past few weeks and stay focused on your business?
And finally, are you brave enough to look yourself in the mirror every day and change? Maybe admitting your mistakes more often because sometimes you seem too arrogant. Taking an extra moment from your crazy day to listen to an employee's problems at home because he needs someone to talk to and he trusts you. Taking a walk around your office for the first time in months and actually telling that guy in shipping what a great job he's doing. Projecting yourself ahead five years and asking yourself whether it's really worth getting upset over that unpaid invoice from a customer. Catching yourself before you scream at a supplier because materials are going to be a day or two later than promised. Restraining yourself from immediately firing off that unprofessional reply to an email you received from an irate customer because you know in your heart that you'll regret it.
I'm not saying that I agree with Edward Snowden's actions. But I do think he's courageous. Very courageous. More courageous than me. What about you?
A previous version of this blog appeared on Inc.com.