Courage can supply a competitive advantage for corporations bold enough to be leaders.Picture this: the starting gate is here, today. The finish line (let’s call it a “sustainable society”) is off in the distance, somewhere out in the fog. Global corporations are lined up at the gate, snuffling and snorting like thoroughbreds. And there’s the gun! Only the corporations don’t take off at a gallop, instead they shuffle and slowpoke around, nibbling at some grass, lolling about with their pals. The really bold ones—and it’s only by comparison—head in a slow trot toward the finish line.
Sustainable business consultants will tell you there are big profits to be made by adopting sustainability-oriented strategies. Their arguments have been well-received—up to a point. “It’s all very nice in theory,” is the stock response, “but you’re going to have to do better than that. You’re going to have to show me proof!” This observation is followed, typically, by lots of lollygagging near the starting line.
So what’s going on here? In a word: fear. Corporations aren’t wired for courage. Scan the business book section in your local Barnes & Noble and you’ll see endless titles praising “innovation,” ditto “excellence.” You’ll also get lots of softer stuff about “soul in business” and such. But you won’t find books about courage, not many anyway. Courage isn’t part of the lexicon or curriculum.
It’s not just that corporations are blind to courage, they actually drain it. “We’ll have to run it by legal.” Or “We’ll have to run it by marketing.” Were two sentences ever more certain to strike fear into the heart?
Business executives also have other reasons to lay low, starting with the relentless pressure to meet their performance targets. Managers live in a “do or get fired” world. That’s not a climate in which courage blooms.
The watchdogs who are forever nipping at the heels of corporations inspire caution, too. For executives, they often come across like hypercritical parents who can never be satisfied. And executives react predictably: If they can’t be right, they’ll be the next best thing—invisible. In other words, not bold.
So we have a corporate culture of fear, and to make matters worse we have a—let’s call it—cultural culture of fear, too. Our consumer culture, especially in the U.S., is built around the denial of death. It elevates youth because youth, as a life-stage, is forever young. It peddles stuff by the boatload because people believe, somewhere deep in their unconscious, that if they can somehow manage to pile enough stuff high around themselves, maybe, just maybe, the Grim Reaper will pass them by.
None of this makes us safe, though. Instead it leaves us addicted to anxiety. Just take a gander at MSNBC and you’ll see what I mean. There it is, emblazoned on the screen 24/7: Terror Alert: High. What a rush! It’s life as a Fright Night movie, Friday the 13th every day of the year.
It’s a double whammy, having this corporate culture of fear housed inside a society that’s chronically a-tremble. But here’s the funny thing: it doesn’t have to be this way. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and for every desire there is an equal and opposite desire. Give me your tired, your poor, your hungry masses yearning to breathe free. Precisely because there is so much fear in the world, people yearn for courageous leadership now more than ever. And not Texas machismo-style courage, but something else entirely—a courage that straightforwardly addresses the roots of our discontent. Such as, for obvious example, the accelerating and, yes, frightening collapse of our natural and social capital.
Could global corporations supply this courageous leadership? Yes—assuming they could justify it. Could it deliver a competitive advantage? Again, yes—and that’s the justification! The yearning for courage—for heroes, really—is, after all, a need, a deep need, and that’s how companies gain market share—by meeting human needs.
There’s a market opportunity here, and a big one. People need heroes, and with the right leadership corporations actually could behave heroically—for instance, by making a bold commitment to sustainability. Heroism isn’t about waiting to find out what the other guy will do. Nor is it about going slow. It’s about racing beyond fear and anxiety.
Reposted from green@work magazine edition Mar/Apr 2003