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Real courage is seeing the truth … and speaking it

Your boss tells you to do something. What do you do?

You do it, right?

But what if every fiber of your being tells you that what he’s asking you to do is wrong? Then what do you do?

That’s just one of the fascinating scenarios laid out by Daniel Coyle in his riveting new book The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups. And really, if you have to pick one book to read before the leaves start falling, make it this one. Coyle pulls back the curtain and reveals the secrets that help great groups run circles around the rest of us.

The one that stuck with me is this: Great groups know how to do the right thing, even when their bosses tell them to do the wrong thing.

Case in point: Dave Cooper. He’s an almost legendary member of the Navy’s SEAL Team Six, a guy who rose through the ranks to earn Team Six’s highest enlisted rank, that of command master chief, who oversees the entire group’s training. He’s the guy who trained the guys who killed Osama bin Laden.

Long before that, though, he learned one of his most valuable lessons on a dark and dangerous road in Afghanistan.

It was New Year’s Eve 2001, and his commander had ordered Cooper’s four-person reconnaissance mission to move from Bagram to Jalalabad and back in a single day. The 110-mile road was pocked with explosives, often impassable, and watched relentlessly by insurgents. But the commander insisted that they go, and so go they did. It took them until nightfall to reach Jalalabad, but the commander insisted that they turn around and return to Bagram immediately so they could complete the mission as planned.

“Cooper objected — that was a bad idea, he said,” Coyle writes. “The discussion got heated; Cooper and his commander yelled back and forth before the commander finally invoked his rank. Cooper submitted. With a sinking feeling … the group set off into the night.”

They were ambushed and nearly killed an hour later. The insurgents showed mercy; they took the SEALs’ weapons and left them by the side of the road, where they radioed for help and were rescued a few hours later. But Cooper awoke the next day with what Coyle calls “a new worldview.”

“The problem here,” Cooper said, “is that, as humans, we have an authority bias that’s incredibly strong and unconscious. If a superior tells you to do something, by God we tend to follow it, even when it’s wrong. Having one person tell other people what to do is not a reliable way to make good decisions. … How do you develop ways to challenge each other, ask the right questions, and never defer to authority?”

The folks at EOS Worldwide would call it being “open and honest” — creating an environment where everyone feels safe in the knowledge that, if they reach out to express their opinions, they won’t get their arms chopped off in the process. In order to get real work done, we need to feel confident that we can call it like we see it — that we can speak the bitter truth and know that our colleagues will accept it and consider it without tearing us down.

“The leader who feels he has to have all of the answers and can never be wrong is completely missing the point,” Gino Wickman writes in Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business. “Being open-minded means being open to new ideas and being ready to change for the better. When your arms are folded, the wall is up and there is no getting in. The mind is like a parachute — it has to be open to work.”

Cooper began instilling that mindset into Team Six immediately after that fateful night in Afghanistan. He created an environment where it was OK to question authority — not only OK, but necessary. He instituted “after-action reviews,” what Coyle calls “truth-telling sessions” in which team members gather “to discuss and replay key decisions.” Mostly, Cooper built a culture in which “it’s got to be safe to talk.”

The bottom line?

“When we talk about courage, we think it’s going against an enemy with a machine gun,” Cooper told Coyle. “The real courage is seeing the truth and speaking the truth to each other.”

The real courage is being open and honest — saying what needs to be said for the greater good of the organization. Too few of us do that. Too few of us believe we’re able to do that.

Too many organizations suffer the consequences.

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