Inside Indiana Business: THE Characteristic Which Defines Leadership

Davy Crockett had it. George Washington had it. Most certainly, Dwight Eisenhower had it. The cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz really wanted it. What is it?

Courage. According to Bill George, a Senior Fellow of the Harvard Business School and author of Discover Your True North , it is the one characteristic that separates winners from losers and leaders from key managers in a business organization. George has been doing leadership research for the last 10 years, focusing on over 200 Presidents and CEOs of large companies. In summary, George makes the case that “the defining characteristic of the best ones is courage to make bold moves that transform their businesses.”

Sometimes these leaders make hard decisions that result in significant changes throughout the organization. The courage to not only make the decision, even when the stakes are high, but to follow through with the courage that George says “inspires their teams, energizes customers, and positions their companies as leaders in societal change” create the significant potential for a complete upheaval in the marketplace.

John Wayne said it perfectly when he stated “courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.” While the definition of the word courage is “the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger or pain, without fear,” George goes on to say “courageous leaders lead with principles – their True North – that guide them when the pressure mounts. They don’t shirk bold actions because they fear failure. They don’t need external adulation, nor do they shrink from facing criticism.”

While many historical examples exist of courageous leaders, both in business and other facets of life, there are some very recent, yet very relevant stories that relate to business growth. In consumer pharmaceuticals, for example, the CEO of Unilever in 2009 was Paul Polman. As George reports, Polman did many good things. He established significant growth goals and began to motivate all the Unilever employees to support sustainability. His goals were not nebulous, but very well articulated. The good news was, as a result of his efforts, Unilever returned two hundred and fourteen percent in the first eight years. The bad news was, with a return like that, Unilever became a target for a hostile takeover by Kraft Heinz in 2017. Being the courageous leader that he was, Polman was able to thwart the hostile takeover and still continue to improve shareholder return.

The on-going battle between Pepsi and Coke is yet another example of courage in the business world. The CEO of Pepsi, Indra Nooyi, had the courage and tenacity to create their Performance with Purpose strategy in 2006. Overall the strategy recognized the millennial generation is shifting away from soft drinks like Pepsi and trending toward drinks that are healthier. It served as a true complement to their current approach. Seven years later, she was approached by activist investor Nelson Peltz. He wanted to break up the company. She successfully thwarted his attempts and maintained the courage to continue to produce short and intermediate results while still focusing on their long term Performance with Purpose innovative strategy.

Meanwhile, the CEO of Coca-Cola, Muhtar Kent focused on, in effect, doubling down on the soft drink market, ignoring the trends away from sugary drinks. According to George, the overall performance of Coke has lagged that of Pepsi. From 2011, Coke stock has gone up fifteen percent. Pepsi share prices have increased seventy percent.

While these are just some examples of courage or lack of courage in the line of fire, many leaders of organizations are too focused on making their immediate or intermediate numbers. They can get too caught up in the present and near term performance of their company, instead of also looking to that long term risk prone decision that might cause them to fail. While ignoring the future by concentrating on the present might be a safer strategy, it is highly likely there will not be substantial growth in your company over time. The key success formula becomes that of having the courage to develop that long range risk strategy while still concentrating and working on the near term issues being faced.

If you are looking to grow your business regardless of whether you are facing obstacles or not, courage in your leadership should carry the day. William Faulkner said it very well, “you cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.”

Dan Arens is an Indiana-based business growth advisor.

This content was originally posted on on 11/3/17.