Do You Have the Courage to be a Leader Worth Following?

Do you have the courage to do things right?

Do you have the courage to do the right thing?

Read those two questions again, because swapping those two little words makes  a huge difference. And recognizing the difference may be what differentiates leaders from leaders worth following.

Let’s start by clarifying the definition of the word courage. What courage means to one person may be completely different to someone else.

Courage is loosely defined as having strength in the face of fear, risk, or uncertainty. My nephew, Zack, is in the military and his training includes jumping out of airplanes. To me, that’s incredibly courageous. Zack would probably describe this as exhilarating or exciting rather than courageous. But that kind of physical courage is both personal and situational.

Moral courage, on the other hand, is completely different. While leadership doesn’t usually include jumping out of airplanes, moral courage is tantamount to Zack’s parachute. Let’s start by exploring some examples of what it isn’t. Michael Horn, CEO of Volkswagen America is one that’s fresh off the presses.   It’s doubtful that VW will ever regain the brand trust they lost as they lied and cheated their way to being known as the “greenest engine on the planet.” As the story continues to unfold, moral courage is not a phrase frequently used.

Is it really possible that a few rogue engineers pulled off one of the largest emissions scandals impacting more than 11 million vehicles and no one on the leadership team knew about the plan? That’s what Horn wants us to believe per his testimony before the House subcommittee on October 8. The leadership of Volkswagen America knew nothing about the biggest automotive/environmental fraud to date? Let’s assume that’s true and his troops were just being good soldiers – doing things right – trying to lead the company to the “greenest engine” status. In a culture where there is incredible pressure to deliver at any cost, can we expect people to do the right thing?

Make no mistake, VW’s “success-or-else, failure is not an option” philosophy wasn’t born overnight, and it relentlessly infiltrated the corporate culture far and wide for years. In fact, the senior leadership not only promoted this philosophy, but proclaimed it proudly and publicly beating their chests as the leaders in the industry.

For example, in 1992 Ferdinand Piech was appointed CEO. That year, eager to flex his power as the “new sheriff in town” (or the German equivalent), Piech called a press conference promoting the new features and technology of a prototype that he touted the “best of the best… unlike anything else out there.” A reporter asked Piech what would happen if the engineering team couldn’t deliver. His response: “Then I will tell them they are all fired and I will bring in a new team. And, if they tell me they can’t do it, I will fire them, too.”

It’s important to note that Piech was the grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, founder of Porsche and VW. Piech’s successor, Martin Winterkorn, was known to be equally as cutthroat. While two generally doesn’t indicate a pattern, it is reasonable to consider the “win at all costs” philosophy had less to do with the gene pool and more to do with the deeply entrenched value deficiency that put dollars before people.

So, this recent scandal…. broken chain of command? Cover-up? Incompetence? Rogue engineers or cutthroat leadership? There are all kinds of agencies and committees that will spend countless hours and money to find out. Maybe we’ll find out the full truth; maybe we will never know. Perhaps what is more significant is that people – all the way down the line – people knew what was happening. They may argue that it took courage to do things right as prescribed by the company, it took courage to be good soldiers and follow the rules put in place for them. But, was it at the expense of doing the right thing?

“A morally conflicted world is in desperate need of moral leadership.”  – Umair Haque

In a recent piece titled, Why Everything You Know About Leadership is Wrong, Umair Haque writes, “The world is crying out for real leadership. Why? Because at precisely the moment it is confronted with problems of a scale humanity’s never seen before, our leaders have rarely been more incremental, timid, cautious, safe, predictable… or, perhaps, corrupt, duplicitous, and dishonest.”

There are certainly enough examples of the latter lately. (If I had the opportunity to belly up to the bar with Umair, I’d suggest that he add greedy to that list, but I haven’t been invited to that bar yet… ) Martin Shkreli is a name that is now synonymous with the word greed after making headlines for raising the price of his newly acquired 62-year old drug, Daraprim, by more than 4000%.

As is Stewart Parnell, CEO of the Peanut Corp. of America. Just sentenced to 28 years in federal prison for his role in a nationwide salmonella outbreak that killed nine people and made hundreds seriously ill, Parnell will be joined by his brother and the quality control manager. Investigators found that this wasn’t an isolated incident. Salmonella contamination was found in his factories 6 times in 2007 and 2008. In addition, unsanitary conditions such as mold, roaches, rodents, and dirty equipment were documented. In his greed, Parnell approved shipments despite all of the reports, health violations, and warnings. So, he’s traded his Armani suits and cuff links for prison stripes and handcuffs.

What about all of the people down the line… the senior team, the operations people, the warehouse workers? Where were their moral compasses? In fairness, they might argue that it took courage to do things right, be good soldiers, and follow the rules put in place for them. Is it really reasonable to expect people to do the right thing if it means jeopardizing their jobs in tough economic times? In the end, no one had the moral courage to do the right thing and nine people died. How reasonable is that?

“Who you are in the worst of times is who you are.”   – Bob Chapman

Is it possible to be a leader with integrity, humility, and a moral compass in the worst of times?  As the CEO of Heartland Payment Systems, Robert Carr made headlines in The Washington Post when his company experienced “the most devastating security breach in history” in 2008.  Carr later admitted, “”I would always say that the worst thing that could ever happen to us would be to be breached,” and most would agree that this qualifies as the worst of times for the leader of a payment systems company. However,  the story goes beyond the hack to include unethical business practices of his own colleagues and advisors that would only strengthen his unyielding determination to address the breach with transparency – even with his competitors. In the worst of times, Carr had the courage to follow his moral compass, leading with honesty and integrity even when the suits in the boardroom advised against it.

In stark contrast to VW and Peanut Corp of America, Carr’s moral compass pointed due north and stayed fixed on doing the right thing over doing things right and following the plan of his advisors. Heartland is alive and well and stronger now than it was before “the most devastating security breach” in history.   His story is well worth the read in his book, Through the Fires.

  “Leadership requires the courage to make decisions that will benefit the next generation.” – Alan Autry

What’s the point?

The point is that regardless of where we sit on the org chart, we have the responsibility to ourselves and those around us to have the courage to be  moral leaders. Moral leadership means being authentically connected to the true north of the head, heart and gut. Moral leaders have the courage to do the right thing – even in the worst of times.

Back to the original question: Do you have the courage to be a leader worth following?  Regardless of rank, position, or title, we all have the choice to be the leader of our own lives and in control of our own moral compass. The line workers at the peanut butter company had the choice to do the right thing. The engineers at VW had the choice to do the right thing. The teachers in Atlanta who compromised standardized tests scores had the choice do the right thing. The analysts who worked for Bernie Madoff had the choice to do the right thing. All of those choices required incredible courage. How many of those people had that courage?

It takes conviction and courage to be a leader worth following. The highest form of leadership isn’t a position. And being a leader worth following is intricately woven into our character, integrity, and moral compass. So, the choice is simple: You can do things right and follow the rules that have been put in front of you or you can do the right thing and be a leader worth following.

In Umair’s words,

“The truth is that each and every one of us was put here to be a leader in our own lives tiny and small. So all who walk beside us may, too, blaze their own trails. Being leaders, not merely following leaders, is our truest challenge.”

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Dr. Melissa Hughes is the founder and principal of The Andrick Group. Our mission is to engage, inspire, and educate people to increase their capacity for learning and creativity. We do this by providing tailored, dynamic workshops that help organizations improve their work by understanding how the brain works and applying that to achieve greater productivity, professional growth, and personal satisfaction.


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