Rob Jones wrote a piece about courage and cowardice earlier this week, noting that the only cowards we are prepared to forgive are fictitious ones and, even then, only Shaggy, Scooby Doo and Falstaff are held in any affection.
But, as Kevin Ball said in the comments, there is a fine line between courage and recklessness, as there is between cautiousness and cowardice. A lot depends on the outcome.
In this context, success makes you courageous and failure a fool. Those that watched you leave on your quest but chose not to follow look wise when you fail and cowards when you win.
Had things turned out differently, Neville Chamberlain might have been hailed as a prudent man rather than a dithering appeaser. Likewise, one of our greatest heroes, Nelson, might have been seen as a reckless gambler who lost a fleet, rather than the man whose actions secured British naval supremacy for a century.
So it is in business. The brave heroes are celebrated while the reckless losers are conveniently forgotten. We know all the legends; how Bill Gates started off in his garage, how Alan Sugar sold car radio aerials and how John Cauldwell bet his savings on a job lot of mobile phones. But we don’t know the names of the ones who fell by the wayside.
As a student, in the mid-1980s, I worked at the Citizens’ Advice Bureau. Sometimes I think it was the most responsible job I’ve ever had. At that time, a lethal combination of rapid deindustrialisation, high unemployment and the business rhetoric of the Thatcher years had encouraged a lot of people to sink their redundancy pay into new business ventures. A depressingly large number of them ended up at the CAB. Were they brave or foolhardy? I was too busy helping them deal with court orders and stave off repossessions to judge.
All too many would-be tycoons wind up in a worse position than they would have been had they never gone into businesses. David Blanchflower has argued that a lot of people going into business does nothing for the nation’s GDP or level of happiness. Most of them, he says, struggle to earn as much as they would in employment. An excess of such courage, or recklessness, could even be bad for the economy.
Having said all that, few people are in the business of fighting major battles or betting the farm on a world-beating commercial idea. For most of us, just a little bit more courage would go a hell of a long way. In most large organisations, you can stick your neck out quite far before you get your head chopped off. Public and private sector bureaucracies have a certain amount of inbuilt protection from arbitrary management vindictiveness. The risks attached to being just that bit braver are not very high.
Asking that question in a meeting that no-one else wants to ask, challenging that bad behaviour, negotiating that little bit harder and, most importantly, tackling that poor performance, can bring significant results. Some of the most effective people I know are those who have that bit more courage than the other people around them. They fight the natural tendency most of us have to bottle out and opt for the line of least resistance. Again, there is a fine line between being ‘a breath of fresh air’ and ‘a dangerous loose cannon’ but most of us are nowhere near it. A bit of extra courage brings a lot of extra results in most business situations.
It’s not easy, of course, especially for those of you who, like me, are both lazy and cowardly. I have had to teach myself to be that bit braver in uncomfortable situations. I use the same technique as I do when selecting picnic spots.
When I’m out walking in a country area like a national park, I get to the point where I want to stop and then walk another mile or so. If I do that, I usually get a better view and there are always fewer people there. It’s the same with difficult meetings or negotiations. I get to that point where I want to pack it in for the sake of a quiet life and, instead, just go that bit further. I ask one or two more questions. I raise that subject that I was about to pretend wasn’t important. I fight my natural instinct to collude with someone to leave a contentious issue undiscussed. It’s surprising how much further you can get when you do this.
When I think of most of the people I know who get results in a corporate context, the main difference between them and their colleagues is their willingness to take the odd risk. They are not the sword wielding business warriors of popular myth; they are just people with a bit more bottle than everyone else. I asked one of them once, after a rather awkward meeting, “Most people wouldn’t have the nerve to say what you said. Do you ever feel scared when you make challenges like that?”
“Oh yes,” he replied, “but I’ve learned not to feel scared of feeling scared.”