In 1965, when I was a junior in high school and sporty, stylish and innovative cars were all the rage, Ralph Nader, a Harvard trained lawyer, published a book that was both highly controversial and highly influential. The book was called, Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile, and after much persistence and lobbying by Nader, resulted in the establishment of a new government agency,National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to oversee and regulate automobile design and manufacturing safety.
The Chevy Corvair, a unique rear engine US automobile, was just one of the many cars Nader and his team researched in order to highlight the dangers of automobile design and manufacture. As a result, many of the modern safety features that are common place in cars today, like airbags, seat belts and collapsible steering wheels arose from this early consumer advocacy work. As a result, passenger deaths over the past 3 decades have dropped significantly, along with more stringent driver training and licensing.
It is impossible to build a 100% risk free, safe automobile, either for the passengers or those outside the car and, like most things in life, auto design and manufacture is a trade-off between cost, safety, efficiency and stylish appeal.
And here’s where our auto design safety analogy comes together with my thoughts on leadership.
While leadership can confer ever-increasing levels of power, authority and compensation, it also carries with it greater and greater responsibility. Not just to shareholders and Wall Street, but to multiple stakeholders who buy the products and services, to the communities the business resides in, and perhaps most importantly, to the employees and workers. In fact, if you believe in the Johnson&Johnson company credo as a guideline for business excellence and sustainability, then customers and employees are first on the list, with shareholders last.
I am not advocating for another government agency (my personal belief is that there is already far too much government regulation), but I do believe strongly that leadership needs to carry with it more than just a title, a larger office and a bigger paycheck.
If leadership appointments and hires come with big responsibilities, then employers and senior executives have to come to grips with how they train, develop and equip employees for leadership roles inside their company. And if you talk to almost any senior executive, they will tell you that leadership training, workshops and seminars don’t work! These may be incremental in helping improve a person’s leadership skills and capabilities, but do not deal with the two fundamental foundations of effective leadership that is “safe at any speed”; CHARACTER and COURAGE.
Effective leadership has more to do with character and courage than with IQ or business degrees. Many highly effective leaders who took their responsibilities to heart never attended a leadership course. Leaders who changed things for the better, like Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Andrew Carnegie, even Ralph Nader, made an impact through their character and courage and not their degrees or leadership course diplomas.
Nader’s book was instrumental in changing things because it raised awareness to an important issue.
“The book had a seminal effect,” Robert A. Lutz, who was a top executive at BMW, Ford Motor, Chrysler and General Motors, said in a telephone interview. “I don’t like Ralph Nader and I didn’t like the book, but there was definitely a role for government in automotive safety.”
So how do we in business put Character and Courage as an important issue in improving leadership at all levels inside our organizations? Do we hire for character, or just for skills and experience and hope character comes along for the ride? Do we have leadership development scenarios for aspiring leaders at all levels that require courage to effectively solve? When is the best time to start to develop character and courage in our up and coming employees, supervisors and managers? When was the last time your CEO gave a talk to new employees about character and courage.
Why am I so focused on character and courage as absolute foundations for effective leadership at all levels? Besides the fact that “it’s the right thing to do”, many of the internal politics, toxic corporate cultures, waste, pollution, unsustainable practices could be more easily solved by those in positions of leadership who had real backbones made of character and courage.
I just read a collection of papers written by Andrew Carnegie and compiled into a book entitled The Empire of Business. It contained one fascinating article on advice for young people starting out in business. The thoughts would make a great leadership foundations class! Another great read about character and courage as foundations for leadership and success is I Dare You, a small book by William H. Danforth, founder of the Ralston-Purina Company, written in 1931 as a model for living a life of character and courage.
The foundation for a great life, a great family, a great company, and a great country is Character and Courage. That’s Leadership!
Courage without Character is dangerous activity. Character without Courage is just wishful thinking.
Written and Posted by: John R. Childress
Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid
John also writes thriller novels!
The sharp-edged theme was that there was a “gap between existing design and attainable safety” and the auto industry was ignoring “moral imperatives” to make people safer.