On 28 September 2018, air controller Anthonius Gunawan Agung saved 160 lives. As warnings about an imminent earthquake made rounds, his colleagues fled the tower. In a split second, Anthonius decided to stay and cleared the waiting Batik Air 6231 for a safe takeoff. Seconds later, the earthquake struck Palu airport. All 160 souls on board survived— Anthonius didn’t.
Shirley Chisholm gave up her nursing career to fight her way into the American Congress, as the first black woman ever elected.
Para-sprinter Johannes Floors, faced with constant leg pain and life in a wheelchair, at age 16 decided on an amputation. Recently he ran the 100m in 10.54 seconds, a new world record.
It’s the brave people who make history.
You can’t be brave all the time (and you don’t need to)
Just look around you. The need for change is everywhere. Change, to leverage technology. Change, to win in shifting markets. Change to help people live better lives.
Change can cause fear. It’s risky. It’s the road less travelled. That’s why change leaders need to be brave, so people say.
I wanted to know if bravery really matters for executives’ business impact. So together with The Marketing Society and Kantar, I conducted the world’s largest study on brave customer leadership—with over 1,000 business leaders from over 60 countries. Here‘s the surprising result:
- Brave leaders didn‘t automatically have more business impact
- Cautious leaders, however, had less business impact
What may sound surprising, makes a lot of sense. Anthonius Gunwan Agung, Shirley Chisholm, Johannes Floors, for example, weren’t brave all the time. They were brave when it really mattered.
Here’s the brutal truth: no matter how much the CEO talks about “failing fast” and “risk culture”, firms don’t reward brave people. Firms reward successful people. Think about it: some companies now have more people checking the business (compliance, finance, legal, sustainability) than creating it (e.g. marketing). Many senior leaders aren’t even allowed to spend money without long, bureaucratic purchasing processes—one of the most baffling inefficiencies in modern business. And executives who always act bravely may simply find themselves out of the door in no time. The bravest thing most people do in firms is sucking it up.
Bravery = purpose minus fear
Would you get close to a venomous spider? Maybe not. How about when that spider sits next to a sleeping baby? Would that encourage you to act? Perhaps!
Bravery is purpose minus fear. The stronger your purpose, the braver you’ll be.
Here’s the good news: for success, you don’t have to be brave all the time—our research bears this out. If you want to help everybody move forward, pick your spider moment. Don’t waste your bravery for small things with little impact. Pick a cause where you can make a substantial difference. That one business idea you always had. That innovative way of serving customers better. A true purpose. Bravery doesn’t guarantee you success. But if the spider bites you, at least you’ve saved the baby.
When is your moment to be brave?
In the below keynote video, I make the case for why leaders need to be brave. I’ve since given versions of this talk at many companies, consultancies and agencies to help people realize: In business, bravery is more than a buzzword—it’s powerful, and it’s possible.
Organizations found this keynote to be particularly powerful at the beginning of a day. Through a mix of facts, stories, and examples, it sets the tone for change and innovation. The audience feedback? Highly relatable inspiration! The reason? We didn’t research Marvel heroes—but real people from real firms. Everybody in the audience can be brave!