Some years back I published a case in the Harvard Business Review, “The Memo Every Woman Keeps in Her Desk.” It became a reprint bestseller. A young woman, working for fictitious Vision Software, drafted a memo to send to the CEO about the subtle and not-so-subtle problems leading to senior women exiting the company. The question posed in the case was whether she should actually send the memo. Would it be seen as helping her company or would it be political suicide? Experts weighed in. Gloria Steinem wrote that unless Liz was in imminent danger of homelessness, she should send the memo in order not to act against her own and other women’s best interests and to give her company her best advice. Other experts, including CEOs, concurred for other reasons that would benefit Liz and/or the company. Everyone realized the risks involved. And so it’s not surprising that other senior level executives advised that Liz not send the memo. They thought the risks were too great. Among their reasons: she wasn’t ready, it wasn’t her responsibility, she shouldn’t go it alone, and, in one case, that a memo wasn’t the best way to convey such a message to a CEO.
The memo case, aside from being about gender issues at work, was about courage — when and how it should be applied. Courage at work is not the same as courage involved in fighting a fire or taking a hill in battle. There’s usually time to think. That’s what the blog I posted Thursday is about. So, too, is an article, “Courage as a Skill” that I published in HBR. In both cases, courage is described as involving calculated risk. You have to ask yourself a number of questions before taking a path most of your colleagues fear to tread. This doesn’t mean that spontaneous courage shouldn’t occur at work. But what good is it if the brave among us regularly hurl themselves into the fire of retaliation because they lack a strong foundation upon which to take courageous action?
You can read “Courage as a Skill” for a more thorough discussion of what it takes to make courageous acts succeed. Among the suggestions are that it’s important to determine your goals — really know why you want to take the risk. Also important is forming a power network, if possible, before acting. Crucial, too, is weighing the risks and benefits. Can you live with the downsides? Then there is selecting the right time. Are you acting on emotion of the moment? Is this a detriment? Finally, contingency plans should be outlined so that no matter how things go, there are viable options.
These questions constitute what I call the courage calculation. Courage is never without risk or it wouldn’t be courage. The best you can do is go in with your eyes open ready for whatever comes your way.