Leadership . . . Unsafe at any Speed?


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.

corvair-crashThe 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.

burn_stake_king_responsibility_1482265While 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.

30714908-_uy200_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

e: john@johnrchildress.com
Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog,  Business Books Website

On Amazon: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

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.

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
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