The Courage of a CEO

(The following is an excerpt from Todd’s book, “Never Kick A Cow Chip On A Hot Day—Real Lessons For Real CEOs And Those Who Want To Be” from Morgan James Publishing. Now available for Kindle on Amazon!)

Mantra # 7: Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires

It is dangerous for a leader to become a full-time firefighter. Perhaps you saw the movie “Backdraft,” where Robert De Niro plays an arson investigator? De Niro’s character discovers that the mystery antagonist and arsonist is actually a fireman. In the real world, this is perhaps a rarity. But in business, some leaders love to start fires because the adrenaline rush of coming to the rescue is addictive.

Dwight Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” You clearly can’t plan for every contingency in a fast-paced business, but if your vision and strategy are clear, you can avoid many of the fires. And when the unavoidable occurs, you are ready to take action without hesitation. In the immortal words of Smokey the Bear, “Only you can prevent forest fires.”

While you should avoid becoming a full-time firefighter, as a leader, you cannot run from fires. In fact, you have to be ready to run right into them. You must have courage.

My youngest son was a Marine and served in Iraq. He happened to be in Fallujah and saw some awful things. He also had many great experiences and was proud to serve our country. He told me that as he was leaving his outpost to return to the United States, an elder in the local community said to him, “We run from trouble, but you crazy Marines, you run right into it!”

“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 Cowardly Lion from the “Wizard of Oz”

Courage might be defined as acting in the face of danger without fear, or perhaps it’s ignoring your fear to do what’s necessary and get the job done. Although having courage alone isn’t sufficient to succeed as a leader, it certainly gets you into the conversation.

Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, took the extremely unpopular decision to radically change his business model several years ago at the risk of upsetting many customers. His courageous decision paid 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. He knew that if the company was going to be successful, he needed to focus his resources rather than have a basket full of mediocre products.

On the other hand, weak leaders 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 dressed up uniform with their hand on the wheel. But when storms break out, 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. As Epicurus said, “You don’t develop courage by being happy in your relationships every day. You develop it by surviving difficult times and challenging adversity.”

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. Risking your job and your position to make a change you believe in takes a lot of courage. Great leaders maintain that courage, along with the seven mantras mentioned above. These pillars help to shape great leaders and maintain crystal-clear focus in otherwise muddied waters.

Real lesson: Real leaders do not run from trouble, nor do they become full-time firefighters. They are courageous and know that they must occasionally fail in order to achieve the greatest amount of success. What are you avoiding right now that needs to be dealt with?

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  • Cal Harrison

    3:04 pm December 1, 2015

    Hi Todd,

    Another great story. I look forward t reading the book!

    • Todd Ordal

      4:26 pm December 1, 2015

      Thanks, Cal! I look forward to your comments.