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What puts the ape in apricot?

“What makes a king out of a slave? Courage! What makes the flag on the mast to wave? Courage! What makes the elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist or the dusky dusk? What makes the muskrat guard his musk? Courage! What makes the sphinx the seventh wonder? Courage! What makes the dawn come up like thunder? Courage! What makes the Hottentot so hot? Courage! What have they got that I ain’t got? Courage!”

—The erstwhile cowardly lion from the Wizard of Oz

I recently attended a boardroom ethics forum hosted by the University of Denver. One position a participant offered was that a necessary and key characteristic of successful board members was courage. I like that word.

Courage might be defined as acting in the face of danger without fear. Or perhaps ignoring your fear to do what’s necessary. Although having courage alone isn’t sufficient to succeed as a leader (as the scarecrow from Oz would tell us, you must have a brain as well), this gentlemen’s comment caused me to think about the truly great, but not perfect, leaders I’ve worked with versus those who were merely presiders. Courage was one of the defining differences.

I wrote some time ago about Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix when he took the extremely unpopular decision to radically change his business model. Recent gains in subscribers portend that his courage might pay off. Likewise, Steve Jobs famously and courageously scrapped many products to focus on a few great ones when he returned to save Apple after it fell into disrepute.

Presiders, on the other hand, are most often hired guns with large salaries who don’t have the chutzpah, passion or confidence to take courageous action. They continue to eat lavish dinners in the captain’s quarters as the ship takes on water. Sunny skies and calm seas? They look great in their dress uniform with their hand on the wheel. When storms break out, however, their true mettle is tested.

Deciding which color to paint the conference room doesn’t require courage. Giving rah-rah speeches about needing customer service, innovation or ethical behavior doesn’t warrant much courage. Flying around in the company jet to slap backs or attend golf tournaments doesn’t demand courage.

Hiring a senior person who’ll stir things up requires courage. Making a strategic choice to abandon large markets or customer groups necessitates courage. Firing loved team members who don’t have what you need to get to the next level demands courage. Looking at the future and deciding that your business model needs dramatic change requires courage.

Our cat Ike is as mean as a junkyard dog. He picks on the other cats, and I’ve seen him chase a fox out of our yard several times — once actually tangling with the fox and holding his own. However, the other morning, I watched a courageous female squirrel bull-rush Ike while defending her turf, causing him to run the other way. Courageous squirrel!

“You don’t develop courage by being happy in your relationships every day. You develop it by surviving difficult times and challenging adversity.”


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Todd Ordal

Todd Ordal is President of Applied Strategy LLC. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He speaks, writes, consults and advises on issues of strategy and leadership. Todd is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Follow Todd on Twitter here. You can also find Todd at http://www.appliedstrategy.info,  303-527-0417 or todd@appliedstrategy.info

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