Monday, March 12, 2012

Cultivating Courage in Business

The odds were against Cynthia Cooper. Raised in a small town and having a humble demeanor, she probably never dreamed she would be featured on the cover of Time magazine. But in 2002 her courageous whistle-blowing halted an $11 billion fraud committed by her boss and co-workers at WorldCom.She was ostracized by peers and received international media scrutiny. While it is unlikely we will ever face the kind of drama that she encountered, there are valuable lessons that can be applied to daily life.First, Ms. Cooper thoughtfully considered alternatives and bravely questioned her higher-ups before reporting the wrongdoing. She did not rush to judgment, nor did she allow her superiors to undermine her confidence.

She demonstrated that courage is not a form of arrogance or rashness.Second, Ms. Cooper tackled this daunting challenge understanding that the consequences of her actions could be a loss of work. In contrast, one WorldCom colleague went along with the illegal scheme in order to protect her employment status. A court later sentenced that associate and five others, including ex-CEO Bernie Ebbers, for their transgressions. Two different people having the same fears but taking two entirely different steps. What a difference courage can make!Nobody is born with a sense of valor, but it can be learned. In her 2007 Harvard Business Review article, “Courage as a Skill,” Kathleen Reardon indicates courage is a decisionmaking process involving an ability to assess one’s own motives for raising sensitive issues and the impact of taking bold action. She suggests asking forthright questions to help individuals avoid emotional or impulsive actions. Some of these questions are paraphrased below:What does a successful outcome look like in this high-risk scenario?

Does the contemplated action advance the group’s principles and values?
If my gain is personal, is it driven by ambition or by the desire to seek a greater good?
Business leaders can foster courage in their organizations by modeling positive behavior and by praising and rewarding those employees who bring errors to light. Managers can also put egos aside, letting it be known that they are open to suggestions, as well as constructive criticism. Fostering small acts of courage can lead to more prudent risk-taking that may ultimately save the company from embarrassing ethical breaches.

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by Shannon Warren

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