Be Courageous, But If You Fail You’re Dead to Me

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So, I’m having this conversation with a friend recently…

She’s a fairly high-level person at a medium-sized corporation. And she’s relaying how her boss has adopted a rally cry to “be courageous.” Oddly, I’ve heard a near-identical story from a handful of others in different companies over the last 6 months. Probably a sign of the times.

Then, I asked, “what happens if you courageously propose a course of action, courageously execute it, then courageously watch the initiative go down in flames? Will they have your courageous back?

Her answer…”dunno. We’ve never really pushed the conversation that far.”

And, therein lies one of major distinctions between true leaders and those who like to sound like leaders.

Words are nice, but in the context of leadership, they’re just words.

If the people you’re saying them to don’t buy in, they might as well have stayed in your head. Especially if they are words that challenge people to provoke the norm, a move that would normally have grave consequences in the face of provocation followed by failure.

So, if you’re the leader, if you get to create the words that challenge the norm…

Be the first one to step up and risk failure!

Don’t just decree..own what comes out of your mouth.

Prove with your own actions that there’s power, integrity and support behind those words. Mullen CCO, Edward Boches, shared a great example of this in his recent post on a conversation with a Fortune 500 president.

Because if you don’t step up, if you don’t own your words, they’re just another dumb-ass proclamation from someone who everyone else will assume is either soon to be drummed out by the board or beaten into the bonds of the existing culture.

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32 responses

32 responses to “Be Courageous, But If You Fail You’re Dead to Me”

  1. Mars Dorian says:

    Hey Jonathan,

    I’ve challenged myself recently to do that – it’s so freaking easy to just say things – but it’s totally meaningless if you don’t go there. The phrase “lead by example” comes to my mind, and it always tells me that I have to be the first to do that step, even if that results in failure !

  2. Hi Jonathan,

    Good article; lead by example to show your employees that it is “safe”.

    What I think is missing in the equation is reward. We only have a specific amount of time and we will attribute that time to the activity which will bring us the highest reward. If you want to create actions, and don’t want to let your words be ‘another dumb-ass proclamation’, you must reward those who are willing to take action.

    Change your incentives (reward) and award change!


  3. Yeah, it’s easy to invite others to be courageous. It’s much harder to relate to them in a way which actually encourages them to do that.

    I think for the most part, we get mixed messages about values like courage or honesty. And this is because the actual words are not aligned with with the elevated words.

  4. Lubinrho says:

    Today is my day to risk failure. After long consideration, I’ll be letting the boss know that I will no longer be able to continue working full time. I’ve built a case to present in hopes they’ll keep me on part time to maintain/continue the company website. Thank you for the unbelievably timely post. I’m always telling people to follow their hearts. Here’s hoping mine doesn’t lead me off the cliff. Dare to dream.

  5. Perusing the comments in book 1000 CEOs, one of the things a great leader does is promote risk-taking (which is really code word for innovation), but still reward the behavior when things go down in flames. If organizations fail to promote this activity, they are in a sense being arrogant. If you’re not evolving, your devolving. Spot on article!

    • Kim says:

      Alexander pointed out that those in charge should “…still reward the behavior when things go down in flames.” That is so key! There is nothing worse for a dedicated employee’s motiviation than a “you’re only as good as your last act” attitude from those above.

  6. I see a great example of that in judged reality TV shows. American Idol constantly has the judges telling the contestants to be more courageous, to be more ‘out there’, stretch, take a chance, etc. Every cliche you could hope for. The next week you can rest assured those same judges will tell that same contestant that ‘yes, while you did stretch a bit, it was really not your style. You should stick to your groove, get back to who you are’ and more cliches about knowing themselves.

    Business leaders can be the same way. They lure the employee in with visions of originality and ‘out of the box’ thinking when what they are really saying is ‘I am stuck, can’t think of a dang thing myself, so YOU jump off the cliff with your idea instead and let’s see how it flies, ok?’

    Never trust a leader who hasn’t already jumped off the cliff before you.

  7. Ivan Walsh says:

    Re: Her answer…”dunno. We’ve never really pushed the conversation that far.”

    Maybe he was waiting for her response. The fact that she didn’t tease out what he meant (or hoped she’d explore) is also interesting.

  8. erik says:

    Great piece Jonathan!

    The leaders DO have to make that basejump before you, especially in an economy where the employer has all the power and control.

    When they hear this, most staff probably think “I’m barely covering monthly expenses and there’s a signup list of people waiting for my job. Pass.”

  9. I wonder how many in the corporate world equate courageous with just doing something (anything) new? In the world of entrepreneurship taking action every day can require some level of courage.

  10. ami says:

    You make a great point Jonathan.

    I think a courageous leader is a leader who invites his staff to take great risks and experiment – and then stands behind them when they fail, even rewards them despite their failure. It is something that leaders need to think about and plan for – otherwise, merely rewarding employees for ‘results’ – and not for stretching – results in employees’ choosing the safe route. And the safe route is the sure route – to mediocrity.

  11. Damn what a FACT. I love it. Leaders who say more than they do tend to get egg on their face in the long run and people tend to abort their leadership.

    Situations don’t make a person they reveal a person.

    “Don’t just decree..own what comes out of your mouth.”

    I love that statement. Own what comes out of your mouth with “action.” You don’t need another meeting you need to take some action.

  12. Linda says:

    Great way to start a Monday!
    The underlying message is to not fall prey to these chest thumping pep talks unless you have proven experience that the person delivering these kinds of messages actually is a risk taker themselves, have tried new things, etc.
    I think a good leader leads by example, which provided the freedom to those employees to fall in line, or create their own success within the company.

    Great topic!

  13. Scott Messinger says:

    Just remember “Pioneers get the arrows. Settlers get the land”!

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      And pioneers who become the settlers own it all…until they sell it and go pioneering again, lol

  14. “Because if you don’t step up, if you don’t own your words, they’re just another dumb-ass proclamation from someone who everyone else will assume is either soon to be drummed out by the board or beaten into the bonds of the existing culture.”

    LOVE. As usual.

  15. andrea says:

    “Be Courageous, But If You Fail You’re Dead to Me”

    …Dad? Is that you?

  16. I’ve been kicking doors open and being eaten by tigers for a handful of years now.

    My not-very-adventurous wife (who’s also my business partner) has started handing me ‘secret’ projects she’s worked on, sometimes for months. Some have completely bombed. Her latest has been a gold mine shaped like a rocket ship 🙂

    I can’t imagine she’d ever have had the courage to fail big and proud a handful of times, if she hadn’t seen me gleefully jumping off cliffs all this time.

    I’m sorta proud of that.

  17. “Oddly, I’ve heard a near-identical story from a handful of others in different companies over the last 6 months.”

    Didn’t you know? There’s a new book out on courage, and they all read it lol

    There’s nothing more annoying–or comical or pathetic–than to have higher ups parrot the latest buzz words and see their peers nod seriously in agreement while everyone in the audience rolls their eyes.

    A director once gave everyone on my management team a popular book on effective coaching. I had a hard time reading it because it described too well what he didn’t know how to do. I didn’t enjoy the reminder.

    Like you say, it’s just words if they aren’t also walking the walk.

  18. When I was the Director of Advertising & Events for the itsy bitsy Entertainment Company, the CEO, Kenn Viselman, boldly gave me the liberty to leap out of the creative box. I would get a pit in my stomach not knowing if an event or a campaign was going to be a smash hit or smashed shit but I jumped at every opportunity b/c I knew he always had my back. We learned how to roll with it & we were not afraid to look like complete idgits ~ and I can tell you first hand, if you’re really going to put it out there, occasionally making a fool yourself in inevitable. We would have a good laugh & brush off the rotten tomatoes but we always saved the seeds & continued to grow. Btw, itsy bitsy was responsible for bringing the Telebubbies to the Americas ~ you may not like ‘em but you know who the are & it took courage & support to make that possible & I’m still grateful for that rare opportunity.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Liz – Love that story. I think you tend to see this attitude a lot more in smaller, more entrepreneurial companies, because they live and die by their ability to innovate and grow. But, once a company reaches a certain size, there’s often a more and more emphasis on stability and not rocking the boat. Which is one of the reasons small nimble Davids can sneak in and topple big old Goliaths.

  19. Jeffrey Tang says:

    Kind of a catch-22, isn’t it? When you’re in charge, people tend to take your encouragement with a grain of salt: “Sure, he SAYS that it’s okay to take risks, but does it he really mean it?”

    You’re right though, if you want your people to take you seriously, you have to follow your own advice. That’s one of the biggest concerns for me at work – how well am I living up to my own standards? Sometimes it’s hard for me to give myself an honest evaluation.

  20. Angela says:

    I agree that you have to follow your own advice, but I also think you have to remember that the moments after something goes wrong are exactly where a manager is really tested and where they truly lead by example – for good or for bad. Do they blow up? Stand up for their employees? Or instead throw them under the bus?

    I try to take a deep breath and remember that my reaction is being watched very closely. It’s where I make good on what I’ve said or where I lose the trust and credibility I’ve built. Not always easy to do, but it’s well worth the effort!

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      No doubt, it’s often those moments where things didn’t go as planned that define a leader and the organization they’re trying to build.

  21. I’m finding that a life long exposure to the “Be courageous…but if you fail you’re dead to me” mindset is difficult to overcome. I’ve realized in the past year just how much it has impacted me and fed the ‘lizard brain’ that we have to fight against to really succeed.

    I love posts like this encouraging leaders to stop with the pointless words and really demonstrate what they think they are saying. I can’t help but think how much better businesses would have done during the ‘economic crisis’ of the past 2 years had this mindset actually been encouraged.

  22. “Courage is not the absence of fear, it’s the willingness to take action in the face of fear.”
    This resonates for me. Have we reduced “courage” to being the new buzzword like “brown” being the new “black”?

  23. Great article. I think this is why so many courageous people end up becoming entrepreneurs, so they have the freedom to make the mistakes they need to get their great thing done.

    (And serendipitously, I just wrote a post about how the worst mistakes and crises are sometimes your greatest gifts.)

  24. This phenomenon of “saying something and pretending that makes it real” is becoming increasingly common in the corporate world.

    I think the root of it began when communication started to become digital & fast. Management started to learn that they could send out messages so fast, that sometimes a “real world” follow up was unnecessary!

    The rational goes “instead of leading by example, I’ll just send CC everyone in on an email that explains what I would do… If I could actually be bothered”

    When talk got fast and easy…. it also got cheap.

  25. Ligia Buzan says:

    I am with Mars Dorian here. I challenge myself to mind my words and own them– every day. It’s a very difficult practice. Thanks for this excellent post!

  26. […] • Be Courageous – But If You Fail, You are Dead to Me […]

  27. Stratetect says:


    Thanks. This is timely, insightful and just damn spot on. I hope you don’t mind but I have quoted it in my blog, with full attribution to you of course. Your blog is new to me and a great discovery. See you again soon and often.