Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, died earlier this year. He wrote the bestseller Only the Paranoid Survive, a book that impacted me as a young leader. Known as brash, but brilliant, Grove was remembered for having courage, that character trait representing a willingness to confront danger or uncertainty.
NPR's tribute to his life highlights a memorable anecdote from the 1980s. Grove, at that time the president of Intel, and Gordon Moore, the CEO, knew their company was floundering. Intel was in the memory chip business, and there was a glut of cheap chips on the market. Business was tough. In this meeting, Grove asked Moore, "What would happen if somebody took us over? What would the new guy do...?" Moments later, Grove continued, "He would get rid of us and get out of the memory business!" Grove took his own advice and led Intel's risky but successful pivot from the memory chip business to microprocessors. This move secured Intel's dominant role in the PC industry for the coming decades.
Andy's Grove's business decision required courage.
Courage is acting in accordance with your inner voice, regardless of conventional wisdom. Courage is acting when the decision is unpopular. Courage is acting in the face of fear. Like other character traits, there is always an opportunity for leaders to cultivate more courage. Courageous leadership should not be confused with merely "taking action." There are lots of leaders who will take action. Often though, they simply choose the course that popular opinion supports. This can masquerade as courage.
Certainly, it is wise to receive input and counsel from others. But too often we care too much about what other people think. We manage our success through people-pleasing. We socialize our decisions. We take opinion surveys. We form committees. We wait to act until we feel consensus. Furthermore, the more senior you are as a leader, the less the people around you have the full perspective that you have. So others may give their opinions, but just remember those opinions usually cannot fully take into account ALL that YOU must consider.
Leaders Aren't Born Courageous
Courage must be cultivated over time. Army Colonel Eric Kail says it well, "We cannot become someone in 30 seconds that we haven't been for the past 10 years. The development of courageous leadership lies in how we live every day, not just the flashes of the extreme. Cultivate courage. Here are some tips to help you:
1. Acknowledge fear: We tend to think that if we feel fear, we are weak and not courageous. Courage is not the absence of fear. The courageous leader often feels fear but acts in spite of it. In her 2011 commencement speech at Barnard College, Sheryl Sandberg famously asked, "What would you do if you weren't afraid?"
2. Own it: Sometimes courage means acting contrary to popular opinion. If integrity involves doing the right thing when no one sees you, courage entails doing what you think is the right thing when others don't necessarily support you. How much of your decision is based on what others think? How much is based on what you think? Are you able to separate the two?
3. Learn from experience: Reflect on risky decisions you have made in the past and learn from them. Peter Drucker said that the way leaders learn is to look at past decisions they have made and see how things turned out. What happened the last time you took a risk? What would you want to repeat from that experience? What would you want to do differently? I'm sure Andy Grove felt exposed, and maybe a little fearful, when he pulled the trigger to make a wholesale change in Intel's business. There were probably dissenters. Yet his courage reaped a harvest of success for Intel. Frank Gill, a former Vice President at Intel, said of Grove, "The big thing about Andy that always struck me is he had the courage of a lion." We remember and respect courageous leaders. How will you be remembered?
Rob McKinnon is a Master Certified Coach and advisor to CEOs. For over a decade, he has partnered with CEOs and senior executives at middle market to Fortune 500 companies as diverse as Adobe, Interpublic Group, Kindred Healthcare, Regions Bank and Schneider Energy. A former Army officer, McKinnon received his MBA from the University of Maryland and completed postgraduate studies in Leadership Coaching at Georgetown University. Click here to visit his website.
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