Are You a Leader or a Coward?

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I hate to be the one to point this out, but most of the corporate businesses in America are run by cowards. [You: “Wait a minute, Stainton. I run a corporate business and I’m not a coward!”] Really? You think not? Then answer this question—honestly: What drives most of your decisions? [You: “Well, let’s see. There are many elements: the profitability of the company, the cost/benefit ratio, consumer expectations….”] Bull. It seems to me that most corporate decisions made in America today are driven primarily by one thing:


In particular, fear of two groups: lawyers and shareholders. In corporate America, it all comes down to two questions: Will the shareholders be upset? and, Will the lawyers sue us?

Now, if that’s the mentality driving your decisions, what do you think your chances are of achieving anything truly great? Pretty much zero. Running a business based on the answers to those two questions might be considered shrewd, sensible, prudent. But, honestly, can you think of any great business (or any great enterprise of any kind) that was built on a foundation of “shrewd, sensible, prudent”? [You: “Okay, smartypants, what about Prudential Insurance? It’s even got ‘prudent’ in its name!”] Nice try, buttercup. When Prudential was founded in 1875, it was the first company in the U.S. to make life insurance available to the working class. That was a bold idea at the time. And that brings me to my main point (some would say my only point; still others would swear I have no point whatsoever).

Great businesses are built from a bold idea. “Overnight delivery, anywhere in the world.” Bold idea. “A computer on every desk.” Bold idea. “Affordable automobiles for the common person.” Bold idea. So what happens? Eventually the founder of the company—the one who had the original bold idea—retires, or dies, or gets kicked out, and the cowards take over. These people have no great vision other than “Stay out of trouble.” And who do they tend to promote to other leadership positions? The people who rock the boat the least. It’s a great way to ascend to mediocrity.

If the Beatles had based their decisions on “Will the shareholders be upset?,” they would never have recorded Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The fans—the “shareholders,” if you will—didn’t want the Fabs to change. They liked their lovable moptops, and wanted them to stay that way forever. But the Beatles didn’t run their organization that way. They ran their organization on bold ideas. Some worked out, some didn’t. (For example, it turned out they really sucked at running a clothing boutique.) A lot of other 60s bands made the other choice: “Let’s just keep giving the fans what they want.” Or, to put it another way, “Let’s not upset the fans.” Other bands made their career decisions based on fear. The Beatles made their career decisions based on bold ideas. Who would you rather be?

Look, I’m not saying go out there and just be reckless. I don’t like lawsuits any more than you do. All I’m asking is for you, as a leader, to ask yourself this question: Would you rather run a mediocre company (or division, or department) that never rocks the boat, or run a truly great company that occasionally pisses somebody off?

In other words, are you really a leader—or just another coward?


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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