Leadership

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).

A good employee is not always an obedient employee.

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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