Achieving Business Excellence with John Spence

False Courage

As I look around the world today I see a lot of very courageous leaders. They have the courage of their convictions. They have the courage to stand their ground in support of their positions, even in the face of great resistance. They have the courage to take enormous risks, with truly global ramifications, on behalf of their beliefs. Yes, it takes an enormous amount of courage to do these sorts of things, but I would argue it is actually a weaker version of courage…a false courage.

Today, more than any other time in my life, I am witnessing leaders who strive to act “courageously” by exhibiting firmness, resolve, and near total inflexibility in their unrelenting drive to establish their cause, their opinion and their agenda… as the right agenda. Frankly, it actually takes very little courage to say: “I am right and you are wrong.” It gives people a strong sense of comfort to know with certainty that their point of view is correct, and that anyone who does not agree with them is in error. But the stark truth is that it does not take courage to refuse to yield your point of view in the face of massive opposition… it takes the greatest courage to admit that you might be wrong.

Although I am a great fan of heroic courage and know that in many situations that is exactly what is called for, what I believe we need from our leaders right now is the ability to show an even more powerful level of courage… the courage of vulnerability. The courage to say, “I don’t know,” or “I need help or even “You may be right, I might have made a bad assumption and be wrong about this.”

 All of us have been in that situation where we have vehemently insisted that we were absolutely right, only to realize about halfway through the argument that we were probably – or even definitely – wrong. But what you do? Do you throw up your hands and immediately admit that you were completely off-base, mistaken, misinformed…wrong?  Hell no, you dig in your heals and fight five times harder to prove beyond a shadow of ANY doubt that you are unequivocally right!!!  (Even though you know you’re wrong).

Well, I think we have an awful lot of that going on in our country right now (and the rest of the world too). In the political system, the financial system, the education system, the health care system…let’s face it, there are a multitude of things that are very broken right now and there is absolutely no arguing about that! However, it seems to me that a lot of people, some very influential and important people, have staked out positions that are verging on completely irrational and yet refuse to show any “weakness” (or vulnerability) in admitting that they might be even slightly mistaken.

What I am suggesting in this post is that our Nation’s leaders (all leaders) need to show more of the incredibly challenging “courage” of expressing real vulnerability. Admit when you don’t know the answer and ask for help. Admit that you’re not Superman or Superwoman and you can’t do it all. Admit that you are confused, in over your head, overwhelmed or that you might even be… wrong.  Admit that the most important thing right now is to think long-term, work together and fix things – not to be “courageous” in the defense of your position and proving that you are “right”. Throw the positions out the window and work for progress. Dump the false pride and get to work on solutions. Our nation needs some real leadership right now, some truly courageous leadership, courageous enough to put aside petty fighting, political posturing, rigid ideology and finger-pointing…and tackle some of the biggest problems our country has ever faced.

***Oh, by the way, I would like to state clearly for the record: I do not have the solution to these problems! I don’t know what to do to fix them! I am very, very, very confused!!! I need a lot of help – we all do – we all need as much help as we can give each other and we can get from each other. Things are tough right now – we could all use a few more friends and supporters. I have no idea how to get us out of this mess – but I absolutely want to do everything I humanly can to be a part of the solution – and I hope you do too!!

As always, I very much look forward to your feedback, comments and questions. Thank you so much – John Spence

PS – August 9th is the last day to vote for me as one of the “Top 100 Small Business Influencers.” I hope you’ll take just a moment and click on the link below and give me your vote!


  1. John,

    Well said. It’s more than frustrating to watch our Congress (both parties, both houses) drive the country over the cliff for short-term political gain.

  2. Thanks John, I wholeheartedly agree with your points. I believe that it is important that leaders of groups should get an outside perspective on things if the consequences of getting it wrong could have a disastrous effect. And by outside I mean that nobody from the same organisation should be the “outsider” as they may feel that they have to agree with the leader who has taken a stance on an important issue. This “outsider” should play a “devil’s advocate” as such and point out potential loopholes that the consenting group around the leader may have seen but because they wanted to conform to the “group” thinking did not press the issue. Both the leader and group need to show real courage when alternatives are mooted.

  3. AMEN!

  4. John, we have a saying in my Department in the City for which I work. “It is about getting it right, not being right”. I try to strive for this each day. Thanks for your blog, it is very timely and true. I look forward to seeing you at FRPA in a few weeks.

  5. John, I agree with your deeper definition of courage. It’s all about being honest with yourself and others that what you think might work is certainly no lock on a guaranteed outcome.

    I do think we need to cut the professional politician some slack on this. They know that the opposition will pound them forever if they ever admit to not knowing the answer. John McCain once stated that economics was not his strong suit and his opponents used that sound bite against him when the economy headed south during the last election. It is probably political suicide for them to state that they are confused, over their head, or overwhelmed.

    The rest of us don’t labor under this restriction and need to step up and admit that no matter what are feeling is about the size of government or whether or not Keynesian economics has any chance of working, we really don’t have a guaranteed answer. The global economic system is so complex that it is impossible for any one individual to be able to predict with certainty that X cause will produce Y result. It’s simply hubris to think that we have the answer if only they would do it our way.

    The economy will eventually fix itself, not so much because of our government officials, but because Capitalism is next to impossible to restrain. At this very moment there are people thinking about how to make their products and services work better in this new environment. Sooner or later this economy will be in the history books and a new one will have emerged.

    • Jim P – great points — I might suggest that this is the reason that some of the “best and brightest” refrain from going into politics — no matter what you say or do – 50% of the people hate you — it is a no-win situation for all of them.

  6. John, so very true and timely! unfortunately I don’t believe there is an easy way to communicate thoughts such as you have stated above to the ‘leaders’ this is most applicable to.. Perhaps at some time in the future there can be some epiphany that dawns on the members of congress to stop posturing and start working together towards a solution to resolve the many real concerns that are very resolvable if everyone intents to address the solution rather than the same old rhetoric.
    Meanwhile, as you said, we can each hope to work towards being part of the ‘solution’ in our own ways.
    Wish you all the best ( and yes, voted – good luck!! 🙂

  7. John, Your blog was the first thing I read when I arrived at the office today and it stopped me in my tracks when I realized it applied to ME! I contacted three of the Directors for the NPO I lead and invited them into a collaborative problem solving with me on some key issues. Two have already responded with an enthusiastic YES! Thank you for the reminder that each of us holds only a piece of the truth, including leaders.

  8. Great article, John!

    I think Jim Payne’s comment above is an important addendum to it: if we want leaders to be more vulnerable, we must commit to avoiding tearing at their throats once they do (or at least rise up to defend them when others do so). One lesson that I’ve learned is almost universally true: what we get from our leaders is often a reflection of what we ourselves reinforce and/or punish in them.

    I think this is a great conversation, John – thanks for having the courage to start it up here. I’m off to vote for you on the site listed above . . .

  9. T. Michael Stavres says:


    You have put to writing the most valuable lesson I was ever taught by my mentor and what still to this day serves as my creed: Focus not on being right, but expend every ounce of energy on getting it right.

    Thank you for helping spread this message!

  10. Thank you ALL for the fantastic comments – I am so glad you found value in my thoughts. Please keep the comments and feedback coming — and send the link on to anyone you feel would enjoy this blog post.

  11. John-
    That was a terrific posting. I usually love them all but this one really hit home with the latest events displaying a serious lack of “thoughtful” leadership. You inspire me to be a better leader and person every day. Thank you!!

    • How cute — my wife responded to my blog!!!! I am glad you enjoyed the post — thank you sweetheat – I love you – John

  12. (I wish my wife commented on MY blogs. Hi Sheila!)

    John, I’m ghostwriting a speech for a client. Just before reading this, I sent off a list of possible topics, one of which was the lack of genuine political leadership in the world right now.

    The Economist tackled this issue last week and raised some decent questions. Or as Iacocca succintly put it: where have all the leaders gone?

    But more importantly, what am I doing about it?

    I’m taking a page out of Gandhi’s playbook: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I want to see leaders think about more than themselves – so how am I helping others? I want to see leaders be fiscally responsible – so how am I managing my own finances? I want to see leaders choose pragmatism over ideology but principle over power – so where do I need to be courageous and where do I need to compromise?

    Most of all, I want to see leaders make tough decisions instead of burying their heads in the sand – so where am I doing that in my own life?

    Thanks for even broaching the issue, John. You’re always inspiring.

  13. You are absolutely right. The two largest democracies in the world are experiencing very poor quality of leadership. What comes out clearly is that a great orator or an economist need not necessarily be a great political leader. I am increasingly noticing that larger companies are having serious leadership issues as the higher you go there is a strong disconnect with the cadres.

  14. Doug Hopkins says:

    Solving a technical problem or facing a novel situation in business requires the kind of give and take and collaboration you are talking about. Then there is national politics. Here, sometimes leadership means the bullshit has to stop. Heads have to be knocked together. The economy is not going to fix itself, niether are the many perverse incentives that give us the most expensive mediocre health care in the world. What is driving us all to distraction right now is that false arguments are being picked up and meekly parroted by the whitehouse while not real plant to fight unemployment is being presented. Real economists are near universal agreement the short term action to jump start this economy must be paired with long term reforms to return to fiscal solvency. You can’t have one without the other; you need an economy to generate growth and you can’t make the government go away so that you can live on your own libertarian island. The bottleneck of the primary system has created the opportunity for the Tea Party extremists to hijack one of our political parties and attempt a rewrite of recent economic history. Leadership requires push-back against this immoderate spasm of confused resentment of everything governmental. But the current occupant of the whitehouse seems bent on making Jimmy Carter look macho. This is a fine lesson in leadership failure indeed.


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