Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Courage of Your Convictions

Being the asker of audacious questions that disrupt people (especially the questions “why” and “how do you know”), my intentions are often questioned by people who wonder “what’s in it for me” when I challenge people who act without a sense of authenticity, collaboration, direction, intention, strategy, values, morals, ethics and the like.

The singer Meatloaf, in his song “Everything Louder Than Everything Else”, expresses my intentions perfectly when he says:

And I ain't in it for the power,
And I ain't in it for my health
I ain't in it for the glory of anything at all
And I sure ain't in it for the wealth

But I'm in it till it's over and I just can't stop
If you wanna get it done,
You gotta do it yourself

The truth of it is that I am just wired this way.  While many people admire what they perceive to be courage on my part and think that it’s awesome to be audacious, it doesn’t come easy.

And while we have many examples of courage in the world, the reason courageous people stand out is because we have too few people willing to let their courage shine.

Unfortunately, there are also many people who know this and take advantage of it.

Contrasting Examples – Winning

Early in my career in NYC, I was given the task of taking care of a client who ate consultants for breakfast.  He was physically intimidating (height-wise and girth-wise), was verbally abusive to everyone and was subject to no HR oversight, the latter even fearing him and dropping complaints against him if they saw his name referenced in the complaint.

His project was failing, he had fired quite a number of consultants and employees and after my first week of absorbing the project that I had been parachuted into, I sat before him as he gave me his list of demands.

This was an extraordinary list.  Curing cancer, creating world peace, putting a manned colony on Mars and convincing Lindsay Lohan that not all press is good press would have been easier.

When he was finished, he leaned towards me and said “I need it by date x”.

“I can’t do that”, I replied, “It’s physically impossible”.

“No one says “no” to me”, he bellowed, his 6’4”, 400+ pound frame filling my field of vision as his sweaty face turned purple with anger.  He stared at me with the gaze that had convinced many people to change their “no” to a “yes” at their own peril.

“Well it looks like I just did”, I replied. “I can either say “yes” and fail to deliver as the ones before me have done or I can say “no” and negotiate with you what can be done by when.  After all, I’m here to make you look like a star, not to set you up for failure.”.

Was this an example of courage?

Not really - I was shaking in my boots as I listened to the words that came out of my mouth.

Did I just say that?

He seemed taken aback, paused and sat back in his chair, staring at me.

What ensued that day and in the coming months resulted in a product that won many awards internally and externally and was the only project in this organization’s history, then and since, that came in under budget and ahead of schedule.

When the day came for us to part company, my client put his arm around my shoulder and said “Do you know what I always liked about you, Harry?  You were the only guy who wasn’t afraid to say “no” to me.  Everyone else said “yes” and then failed me.  But you helped me by challenging me.”.

Was this courage?

Not really – I just thought it was the right thing to do, even when doing so was difficult, painful and yes …. even professionally lonely.

Contrasting Examples – Losing

Some years ago, I was a member of the board for a children’s charity and there were allegations that the Executive Director was siphoning money and consulting from the organization in preparation to launch his own business.

Everyone on the board knew it and were coming to me privately saying “you should say or do this or that”.  When I asked why they didn’t do it themselves, they all had a variety of answers that amounted to a pile of excuses about pleasing others, not wanting to make waves  or not wanting to offend others, both inside and outside the organization.

The truth was that they were hoping someone else had the courage to fix what they knew to be wrong but they wanted someone else to take all the risks in living out their convictions.  As powerful people, they did not want to be perceived as derailing the charity even though their actions would in fact have strengthened it.

When problems arose with the taxation authorities that the ED played down, I decided enough was enough and presented a case before the board.  While the board members were full of piss and vinegar privately, no one supported my motions publicly and I eventually resigned from the organization, notifying appropriate authorities regarding my thoughts on various matters.  I realized that such a dysfunctional organization could not be saved unless the board had the collective courage to save it.

A couple of months later, the board realized I was right and screwed up the courage to confront the ED with intent to fire him.  He reminded them that since they knew all along that he was breaking rules (and laws), he was going to rat them out as conspirators unless they rewarded him with a golden parachute.

Courage should have challenged the board to think “fool us once, shame on you, fool us twice, shame on us”.  But alas, their courage was fleeting.

Under pain of a threat that he was in no position to make, they paid the cash he was demanding.

He used the money, donated for children, to start his own company for his own gain.

Courage is not easy

We associate courage with overcoming fear, difficult circumstance et al - to do something uncommon that others might not do or to persevere through difficulty, not backing down just because someone else says we should.

While there are many “good” courageous people out there, there are unfortunately, many “not-so-good” courageous people out there, who use brazenness, threats, power and other things to drive their agenda – pushing it down the throats of people who won’t stand up for what matters to them.

And while the coffee shops of the world are filled with courageous intentions and passionate cries to “fix the world”, those intentions fade rapidly under the wilting punishment of those who are more courageous in driving their own agenda than those being steamrolled by the same agenda.  As F. Scott Fitzgerald once mused:

At eighteen our convictions are hills from which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide.

Unfortunately, courage is not limited to those who are well-intentioned and dedicated to the betterment of mankind.

While my Life has been a blessing of passionate, smart, service-oriented people, I have also had to stare down politicians, business leaders, church leaders, military figures and other interesting people who think that anyone who challenges their inappropriate intentions are individuals who must be silenced by any and all means (literally) before the masses discover what they are up to.

And when I run into one of those folks, I think of a line in Desiderata that says:

Even the dull and the ignorant, they too have their story.

That may be so.

But when “the dull and the ignorant” are driving an agenda that either serves their needs at the expense of others or actually threatens to harm us in some way, then we need to decide if we have the courage to put up a hand and say “Before you / we proceed, I need to ask a question” or the more audacious “Stop – I don’t accept this”.

Otherwise, the story of the dull and ignorant may become our story.

And depending on their intentions, it may not be a story that we appreciate being included in …. or playing a starring role in.

Dag Hammarskjold once said:

Never for the sake of peace and quiet deny your convictions.

When we deny our convictions, the peace and quiet that we think we have earned will be of short duration.

I think that true, sustainable peace and quiet comes later - after we have exercised our courage.

What do you think?

In service and servanthood,


You are the light of the world.  A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl.  Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds. - Matthew 5:14-16 (NIV)


While my examples suggest that courage is all about action, sometimes great courage is needed to take no action when others demand it.  Acts such as patience, surrender or trusting someone else, when warranted, may take immense courage to carry out.  The potential to demonstrate courage is unique to the situation and the individuals involved.

Meanwhile, we now have people in Canada developing apps like You’re So Rude.  The app is for people who don’t have the courage to stand up to rude people directly but instead, allows the affronted to send an anonymous email to the offender.  It doesn’t take much courage to do things in anonymity and as a result, the actions produced will have little if any real effect. 

As a Canadian who has often remarked on the passive-aggressive nature of some Canadians, apps like this don’t help negate the argument for the existence of such passive-aggressiveness. :-)  However, I wonder if such apps will do nothing more than enable cyber bullying, an act that takes NO courage to perform but can often take significant courage to endure.

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