Value Systems : Wanted: Leaders with Courage

Ray Weekes has been Chairman of The Brisbane Institute since 1998. He is a member of the Royal Children’s Hospital Foundation Board, a Director of Pacific Film and Television Commission and a member of the Advisory Board of Century Yuasa Batteries Pty Ltd. He is also CEO-in-Residence/Adjunct Professor at the Queensland University of Technology and a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.  From 1986 to 1997 Ray was Chief Executive and Executive Director of Rothmans Holdings Limited, Chief Executive of Rothmans New Zealand and Managing Director of Castlemaine Perkins Ltd (makers of XXXX). He has a Bachelor of Commerce degree and postgraduate Diploma in Business Administration from the University of New South Wales and a postgraduate Diploma in Education from the University of Sydney.

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It was Tom Peters, in an article in the Harvard Business Review on what makes a successful leader, who concluded that great leaders were frighteningly smart, had tons of animal energy, were blessed with monumental impatience, were able to distil a vision for their troops, recognised and resolved the big issues, maintained a healthy disgust for bureaucracy, were performance freaks, were honest, straightforward straight shooters, were rapidly decisive and were future focused, not report or past oriented. Also great leaders were rigorous in their own execution and follow-up and were highly driven. This individual leader exists largely in Tom Peters' imagination.

Realistically a leader can be some of those things all of the time and all of those things some of the time. But one of the true virtues of leadership is missing from Tom Peters' rather colourful list - courage. This was recognised by Defence Force Chief, Major General Peter Cosgrove, in an address to the QUT Business Leaders' Forum in 2000 on his leadership experiences. He gave four essential elements of leadership - integrity, humility, compassion and courage.

For the Greek philosophers, courage was one of the cardinal virtues. It depends on justice and has two subsets: physical and moral. It is moral courage that we appropriately address in the business context.

Courage in business leadership is expressed in many ways. It can be changing a vision and strategy. It can be maintaining an ethical stance in the face of personal risks. Courage can be a key factor in driving out the fear that is prevalent in many companies. It can be about holding to a strategic choice and transformation efforts in the face of severe questioning from industry analysts and others.

Courage for a business leader can be confronting employees directly affected by your downsizing decisions and making yourself vulnerable to their criticisms and anger. Courage is caring enough about your values that you uphold these in the face of risks. Leadership is about change and it takes real courage, at times, to maintain your resolve when the real risks of change become blindingly apparent.

A successful leader today must have a capacity to realistically assess him or herself and understand the personal values that truly matter in corporate behaviours. Self awareness and deeply held beliefs are essential elements of courage, the very essence of leadership. Courageous acts are taken by self aware people with fully meshed values.

Neither courage nor leadership can be founded on the action of an individual who lacks self-awareness. Without self-awareness, these actions would fall somewhat closer to rashness. For outstanding leaders to exercise courage, it follows that courage in any context, whether it be in the business arena, political sphere or whatever, it needs to be underpinned by certain personal characteristics of the individual - that are derived from an unsparing self examination.

Courage in political leadership is setting a direction for the long term and taking people with you. Many view the style of political leadership today as more cautious, less prepared to get ahead of the pack and less reformist. Our political leaders, at times, are less prepared to truly lead in a bold, audacious manner and seem to look sideways or in the rear vision mirror to decide where to go next.

In the television series "Yes Minister", the senior public servant Humphrey, in his attempt to dissuade the Minister from proceeding with a particular action, would say, "Oh, yes Minister, that would be terribly courageous!" In the political sense, Humphrey equated courage with naivete or rashness.

Former Prime Minister, Paul Keating, singled out two key elements of leadership - imagination and courage. Keating said, "between the conception and the execution, there is faith, hope and courage. Leaders fail when they imagine things but don't do them. We have to be bold and faithful to ourselves."

Paul Keating's Press Secretary, Don Watson, in his recent memoir Recollections of a Bleeding Heart emphasised the importance of courage in Keating's leadership style, saying that "courage was Keating's hallmark and his stock in trade, whereas for some politicians it is nous, charm or practicality. Keating had these other attributes but it did not define him in a way that courage did. Courage was a prime element in the Keating mythos and a sign of weakness or a failure of will was a sign that the game was over."

This echoed the grand old man of US economics, John Kenneth Galbraith who said, "All the great political leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This is the essence of leadership."Leadership is primarily about change. It is about action. It is about having the courage to develop a different vision and strategy, to empower others to act and to have the strength of character to set the right examples and to stay with the pain and sacrifices of change.

Change is an imperative for any organisation but it does take courage to face the real risks of change. Yet as Charles Darwin once said, "it is not the strongest that survive, nor the most intelligent but the ones most responsive to change". And we should recognise that compelling line about change; "the plains of Siberia are littered with the bones of sled drivers who thought that they would rest up for the night and that the pursuing wolves would do the same".

These are definitely stressful times for business leaders but, as a leader in business or in any field, you must have the courage to care, to care enough about your deeply held personal principles, that you hold to these in the face of personal risks.

The recent massive corporate failures in Australia, the United States and other Western countries not only represent, as Business Week says, "corrupt and unethical behaviour on an unimaginable scale," but also major failures of courage. The question is being asked "can trust be rebuilt" in our corporate institutions?

In the case of Enron and WorldCom, this failure of courage manifested as something of a conspiracy of silence that allowed the companies to reel out of control. A similar silence pervaded the 1929 crash. As John Kenneth Galbraith wrote about the financial luminaries of the era: "The sense of responsibility in the financial community for the community as a whole is not small. It is nearly nil. To speak out against madness may be to ruin those who have succumbed to it. So the wise on Wall Street are nearly always silent. The foolish have the field to themselves and no-one rebukes them."

And so it has been today, just as 73 years ago. "There's still a tradition, a culture of restraint that keeps one from attacking one's colleagues, one's co-workers, no matter how wrong they seem to be." Galbraith speaks to this failure of nerve and courage when he says, "in any great organisation it is far, far safer to be wrong with the majority than to be right alone".

Public trust in the basic truthfulness of companies or their corporate leaders is coming undone. People everywhere are asking - who and what can you trust? According to the latest Gallup Poll, public confidence in big business is at its lowest level since 1981. And based on the structuring of executive compensation packages and the fact that turnover for chief executives has never been higher, it takes a certain courage these days for business leaders to look beyond this year's results to the long term health of the organisation.

The old adage, "you get the behaviours you reward" may never be more appropriate than in these times of "corporate excess" and unethical behaviour on a massive scale. These acts of weakness by certain corporate leaders have, to a significant extent, been driven not only by poor corporate governance practices but by remuneration packages that have fostered short term thinking, greed and a widespread suspension of acceptable values. Also by an absence of courage.

Today's business leaders used up much of their community credit. Those who exploit the negative public mood say - now is the time for them to be brutally honest about their actions. Some of these people are politicians - some are civil servants. Each likes to provide a difficulty for every solution. What they share in this preference for "brutal honesty" is that they get more satisfaction out of the brutality than out of the honesty.

It is also important to not confuse conscience and ethics. Conscience has two forms - firstly that inner voice which knows what's right and what's not and secondly the inner voice that warns us that someone may be looking. The fear of being caught is hardly a strong philosophical base for any self-imposed code of commercial behaviour and ethics, and I suspect, often gets a lot of credit that actually belongs to "cold feet"!

Leadership - and courage in leadership - is knowing what's right and then acting on it.


© The Brisbane Institute 1999-2003

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