Updated: Aug 17, 2021
by Ulises Pabon
I was recently talking with a CEO about his executive team. He used the term “managerial courage” to describe one of his managers. This manager, he argued, had the ability and determination to make decisions others would shy away from and to drive these decisions to completion in the face of ifs, ands, or buts from his team.
The term reminded me of my years at Intel. I worked there during the triumvirate of Robert Noice, Gordon Moore, and Andy Grove, and they were, particularly Grove, demanding. At Intel, you learned to be blunt and direct. “Constructive Confrontation” was the first Intel-U class you were automatically signed up for. You learned to be accountable and to demand accountability from others… up, down, and sideways. I don’t remember ever hearing the term “managerial courage” at Intel but, for sure, the idea was at the core of Intel’s culture.
Why, then, did my stomach turn as the CEO made his point? It turned because he was using the concept to refer to a very bright and intelligent manager that happened to have a history of stepping over people and was famous for pushing his own agenda while astutely playing politics at the C-Level suite. That, my friend, is not managerial courage.
There is a fine line between managerial courage and dictatorship. Let me take that back. It’s not a fine line, it’s a gray area. And once you get close to that gray area, the temptation to cross to the dark side can be overwhelming.
In the Star Wars trilogy, Anakin Skywalker is a Jedi Knight that is lured to the dark side by Palpatine (a charismatic politician and Sith Lord who transforms the Galactic Republic into his empire). Once Anakin crosses to the dark side, he becomes a Sith Lord himself and assumes the title of Darth Vader. You know the rest of the story.
But how did Anakin, a Jedi Knight, succumb to the dark side of the Force?
There’s considerable debate around this question among Star Wars enthusiasts. The storyline presents many intertwined factors. While we can search forever for answers outside of Anakin, it’s inside him where we will find the key culprits: fear, hatred, and anger.
In the Jedi tradition, becoming one with the Force requires honesty, compassion, mercy, and self-mastery. These virtues are neither static states nor levels of achievement; they are behaviors that need to be engaged in continuously. They require constant nurturing through deliberate reflection and practice.
Fear, hatred, and anger, on the other hand, only need doubt and inaction to enter a person’s psyche. For sure, once they find a stronghold, these vices grow as they feed on each other. But, at the outset, lowering one’s guard is all evil needs to take root. That was Anakin’s shortcoming.
What does this have to do with managerial courage?
When practiced with honesty, compassion, mercy, and self-mastery, managerial courage is a powerful tool. So powerful, though, that if you let your self-mastery slip into ego-centeredness, your compassion and mercy slip into indifference, or your honesty slip into pretense and deceit, you will find yourself lured into the dark side.
Once on the dark side, managerial courage turns into aggression and dictatorship. Blinded by their ego, managers turn into autocratic bosses. Indifference for others justifies turning their personal agenda into the agenda. Pretense and deceit trap them in a vicious cycle and draw them more and more into the dark side.
In her best-seller titled Radical Candor, Kim Scott presents a powerful framework that comes very close to the managerial philosophy I learned at Intel and to the proper practice of managerial courage. She describes Radical Candor as a managerial style that combines Personal Care with Direct Challenge.
Scott is careful to explain that Radical Candor is not a license to be gratuitously harsh. She argues that Direct Challenge, absent of Personal Care, is obnoxious aggression.
Scott illustrates this point with a playful example. Let’s say a colleague walks out of the restroom unaware that his fly is down and that his shirttail is sticking out the front. If you pull the colleague aside and quietly let him know his fly is down, you’re practicing radical candor. You’ve challenged him directly while demonstrating care and respect. But if you just shout it out in public, trying to be funny, you’ve shifted into obnoxious aggression.
I think Scott is spot on. Managerial courage without personal care, without compassion, without love, is a ticket to the dark side.
The word love may sound out of place in a management article. Yet, love is what transpires when you read Carlos Raul Yepes’ book titled Por Otro Camino – which translates to “Down a Different Path”. Yepes led Bancolombia from 2011 to 2016. As of October 2020, Bancolombia led the ranking of best banks in Colombia, with total assets amounting to 275.76 billion U.S.
In Por Otro Camino, the former president of Bancolombia writes about his 5-year presidency and shares many stories that exemplify tough decisions within a framework of personal care, compassion, and love – from dealing with mortgage default to controlling costs to firing.
The book carries an interesting subtitle: De Regreso a lo Humano, which translates to “Restoring a Humane Perspective”.
Honesty, compassion, mercy, and self-mastery do not weaken managerial courage, they enable it. These virtues don’t stop you from doing what needs to get done; they change how you do what needs to get done.
Manage courageously. But do so in the Jedi tradition – consciously committing yourself to honesty, compassion, mercy, and self-mastery. In a world obsessed with success, this path will lead you to significance. It will strengthen your resolve to extend beyond yourself. It will nurture your sense of meaning. And it will empower you to realize more of yourself and of those you touch.
May the Force be with you.