Winston Churchill stated, “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it is the quality that guarantees all others.” Leaders and directors must possess this quality of moral courage – the ability to act rightly against popular opposition, peer pressure, intimidation and ridicule. “To stand up when others sit down” (Moral Courage Project)

Sustained courage or fortitude requires the strength to endure, to repress fear over an extended period. This persevering “grace under pressure” (Hemingway) is braver than an adrenalin response to sudden danger.

Anzac Day reminds us of Kiwi servicemen dealing with fear over an extended period. In Gallipoli, France and Flanders, Africa and Italy, at sea and in the air, they found this endurance.

At the recent IoD National Conference, we were privileged to hear from two courageous leaders. Melissa Clark-Reynolds told us of her decision to close her Minimonos children’s entertainment brand when it had joined the top four in the world, when all indicators pointed upwards and the business appeared poised for incredible take-off. She recognised early danger signs of technology obsolescence, noting children moving from TV to Mobile apps for their games and entertainment. Moving perhaps two months too late, she made the call to close her business and lay off her talented loyal staff. Within weeks, her courageous decision was proven correct. Only Minecraft survived.

Then Paul Cooper shared with us his four year trial of endurance as recipient of a hospital pass chairmanship of Centro Pty, the huge shopping centre business whose funding and legal crisis required utmost fortitude. Triggered by the refusal of one of the Company’s 23 banks to roll debt over, thousands of interest dues on deposits could not be honoured. Centro’s business model and share market value were destroyed overnight. He and his Board ultimately led Centro back to solvency, but the personal price he knowingly paid – then and now – only heightens one’s admiration for his courage.

Practical crisis leadership advice from Paul Cooper in “toughing it out”: –

  • Believe in yourself
  • Be yourself
  • Lead – and others will follow
  • Earn trust
  • Get the best advice
  • Don’t surrender to your advisors – have courage
  • Leave when the job is done

At a Business As Usual level in our boardrooms, we all need to find moral courage to act rightly. To question until satisfied, to debate robustly, to be hard on the issue while being respectful on the people, and to discharge our fiduciary duty by putting the company first. (See my May 2013 piece for more)