Leo D'Angelo Fisher Columnist

Leo covers management and leadership issues, business trends and corporate strategy. He is a former senior business writer at The Bulletin and a former host of The Business Hour on 3AW.

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Fire in the belly: It’s courageous at the top

Published 27 March 2013 10:24, Updated 27 March 2013 12:06

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Fire in the belly: It’s courageous at the top

Woolworths chair and former Qantas chief, the late James Strong said leaders need the ability to talk to people on every level of a business. Photo: Paul Jones

Courage is an essential component of leadership. Making decisions under pressure takes courage, so does taking risks, setting directions and sometimes just turning up for work in the morning.

Since the global financial crisis, even the boldest business leaders have become unusually sensitive to risk. When confidence is shaken and caution takes root, opportunities are squandered, inaction becomes the default position and corporate cultures are contaminated as fear and anxiety from the c-suite courses through the rest of the organisation.

When the fire in the belly goes out, it’s not long before the leader follows suit.

A new book by management writer Margie Warrell, Stop Playing Safe, features interviews with business leaders and shows courage in its many contexts and permutations.

The late James Strong , former chief executive of Qantas and chairman of Woolworths , spoke about the role of courage in building trust with employees.

“As a leader you have to be willing to put yourself at risk in the way you communicate and interact with employees. It’s essential to be willing to expose yourself as a CEO, a leader and as an individual,” Strong, who died in early March, told the author.

As a leader you have to be willing to put yourself at risk in the way you communicate and interact with employees.

“Being willing to talk to people at every level, especially at the front line, in unstructured ways can be daunting for many leaders. It takes courage to expose yourself in an unstructured session of discussion where you risk direct criticism, difficult questions, hostility and even unsuccessful outcomes because you are leaving the safety of … a controlled environment.”

Former media executive Ita Buttrose says the courage to pursue a decision when everyone is warning you not to is essential for business success. “You have to risk your reputation or you will never know what you can do,” she tells Warrell.

Success also requires the courage to confront failure. “Some of the best opportunities can emerge out of failure but you have to be willing to look for them and then be brave enough to take them.”

No wonder it’s so lonely at the top.

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