Courage – The Underestimated Virtue

For Win­ston Churchill it was crys­tal clear that with­out courage all oth­er virtues would become mean­ing­less. It is not only in soci­ety and pol­i­tics that we need courage more urgent­ly today than we have in a long time; more would also ben­e­fit our com­pa­nies and their employ­ees. We need courage to make tra­di­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions fit for the future. The cur­rent abso­lutist-hier­ar­chi­cal build­ing prin­ci­ple has final­ly served its pur­pose. In the age of dig­i­tal­iza­tion and knowl­edge work, our com­pa­nies require a new enlight­en­ment with a more con­sis­tent sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers. Immanuel Kan­t’s mot­to for the Enlight­en­ment should there­fore stand above every gate: “Dare to know! Have the courage to use your own intelligence!”

The Most Important Document in the Valley

With­out courage all virtues lose their meaning.

Win­ston Churchill

In 2009 Pat­ty McCord pub­lished Net­flix’s Cul­ture State­ment as for­mer Chief Tal­ent (sic!) Offi­cer. The 125(!) slides describ­ing Net­flix’s cul­ture have since been viewed an incred­i­ble 18 mil­lion times and Face­book’s COO Sheryl Sand­berg has described them as “the most impor­tant doc­u­ment ever to come out of the Valley.”

Even after the update last year, the state­ment in its cur­rent ver­sion has retained its orig­i­nal strength. Still, in Churchill’s sense, courage is not only one of nine oth­er (very cap­ti­vat­ing­ly for­mu­lat­ed) val­ues in Net­flix, but has a spe­cial posi­tion in that it explic­it­ly includes the courage to open­ly address incon­sis­ten­cies between those val­ues and how peo­ple live them.

Court Jesters and Rebels

It’s easy to write admirable val­ues; it’s hard­er to live them. In describ­ing courage we say, “You ques­tion actions incon­sis­tent with our val­ues.” We want every­one to help each oth­er live the val­ues and hold each oth­er respon­si­ble for being role mod­els. It is a con­tin­u­ous aspi­ra­tional process.

Net­flix Cul­ture Statement

This explic­it per­mis­sion to coura­geous­ly address devi­a­tions from the ide­al cul­ture gives all employ­ees pre­cise­ly that “fool’s free­dom” that court jesters used in the Mid­dle Ages to address moral mis­con­duct. And this makes the deci­sive dif­fer­ence to the equal­ly pol­ished state­ments of val­ues of many oth­er orga­ni­za­tions, which are often per­ceived as emp­ty or out of touch with real­i­ty. (In the orig­i­nal ver­sion of the Net­flix Cul­ture State­ment, Pat­ty McCord and Reed Hast­ings refer explic­it­ly to the Enron scandal).

In the absence of such per­mis­sion, it is still pos­si­ble to use one’s intel­lect in the spir­it of Immanuel Kan­t’s guid­ing prin­ci­ple, based on the con­cept of civ­il dis­obe­di­ence, as many cor­po­rate rebels already do. They iden­ti­fy them­selves with the orga­ni­za­tion and the actu­al pur­pose of the orga­ni­za­tion, but not nec­es­sar­i­ly with all its incon­sis­tent rules or an orga­ni­za­tion­al cul­ture that is per­ceived as a detri­men­tal fac­tor. They do not work against the orga­ni­za­tion, but always aim to improve the orga­ni­za­tion. Their dis­sent­ing think­ing and dif­fer­ent ways of work­ing are there­fore the deci­sive dis­tur­bance to pro­tect an orga­ni­za­tion from com­pla­cen­cy and inertia.

Context Not Control

The leader’s job at every lev­el is to set clear con­text so that oth­ers have the right infor­ma­tion to make gen­er­al­ly great decisions.

Net­flix Cul­ture Statement

The ques­tion of how to lead rebels or sim­ply knowl­edge work­ers in a “species-appro­pri­ate” man­ner in the sense of the nec­es­sary self-orga­ni­za­tion is brought to this sim­ple for­mu­la at Net­flix: con­text not con­trol. The most impor­tant lead­er­ship task is to shape the con­di­tions for employ­ees in such a way that they can make their own deci­sions. And unlike many oth­er top man­agers, Reed Hast­ings prides him­self on mak­ing as few deci­sions as pos­si­ble at Net­flix. A coura­geous atti­tude that leads to coura­geous employ­ees and hope­ful­ly finds many followers!

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