Business the Eleanor Roosevelt Way

In My Year with Eleanor, author Noelle Hancock  took to heart Eleanor Roosevelt’s advice to “Do one thing every day that scares you.” Every day for a year, Hancock did something she never imagined she’d have the courage to do. While her year was filled with trapezes, karaoke, sharks, and other things not necessarily relevant to the business world (OK, maybe the sharks…) the notion of regularly doing things to push us out of our comfort zone is quite applicable to corporate life. If the #WIF11 twitter hashtag is to be trusted, there are not a lot of speeches being given at the World Innovation Forum on the virtues of being timid. In business, the bold are rewarded. Audi, as an example, decided to ramp up production when most companies in their sector were scaling back. They also decided to take on BMW,with a goal of unseating them as the top luxury car manufacturer by 2015. So far their courage is paying off. As a rule, foxes can’t sit around waiting for their food to come to them. Carpe gallus domesticus!

Here are some ideas for bringing bravery to the job:

Practice makes perfect. Being courageous at work does not mean challenging the boss to a dual at the next board meeting; it might, however, mean asking her if we can pitch our new idea to the senior management team. Life coach Cheryl Richardson talks about the importance of building one’s “courage muscles” by taking risks on a regular basis. This could mean anything from asking for more challenging work, to giving a speech to an industry group, to entering a new market. We don’t want to be like Aesop’s fox who walked away bitterly after being unable to reach the grapes. Stretch, jump, ask to borrow a ladder: few people end their days wishing they’d been less brave.

Courage can be borrowed. There are two parables out there about a tiger and a fox. Aesop’s version focuses on a tiger who, having been shot by a hunter’s arrow in spite of thinking he is invincible, is basically heckled by a sanctimonious fox. The morale of the story is that no armour is impenetrable: kind of a bummer, really. We prefer the parable from the third century BC historical text, Zhan Guo Ce. In this story, a fox is caught by a hungry tiger. The fox, who has no desire to be eaten, is filled with bravado and basically starts trash-talking the tiger. He tells that tiger that he, the fox, is king of the beasts and dares the tiger to eat him and thereby incur the wrath of God. The tiger, confused that the fox is laying claim to his job title, demands proof of the fox’s status. The fox challenges the tiger to follow him through the forest and watch the animals scatter in fear. The two set off together and the other animals, seeing the tiger, run away. The fox takes all the credit and the tiger, believing the fox’s claims of ferociousness, spares his life. While the parable is designed to show how people can appropriate our power, it also shows how we can borrow the courage of others. We aren’t condoning false bravado or the idea of “fake it ’till we make it”, but surrounding ourselves with courageous people can help us to feel more bold. We can attend conferences with like-minded people, join a mastermind group, invite people we admire for lunch. Courage is contagious.

Assess the risk. Part of what makes bold actions scary is the inherent downside: every time the fox sneaks into the henhouse, he risks ending up on the wrong side of a farmer’s double-barrelled shotgun. Before doing something brave, we like to contemplate the potential problems. We do this not because we are closet masochists, but because some forethought can help us manage the risk. We look at 1) what might go wrong (potential problems) and 2) why it might go wrong (potential causes.) For each potential cause, we look at what preventative actions we can take to reduce the probability that the problem occurs. For each potential problem, we look at what contingent actions we might take to minimize the impact. Assessing risk can help us to be more courageous, as it’s easier to take a leap of faith when we are fairly certain it won’t lead to disaster. If we are about to go skydiving, we are much more likely to jump if we are confident that the parachute was not packed by some guy coming off a 6-day bender. Just saying…

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