The Benefits of Doing Business the “Eleanor Roosevelt” Way

Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, "You must do the thing you think you cannot do." While she was encouraging personal boldness, the message is also applicable to corporate life.

In 2010, Audi stated its bold goal of “becoming the leading brand worldwide in the premium car segment.” They aimed to overtake BMW, who has held the number one sales position for the last decade, by 2020. This audacious goal has helped increase their overall performance significantly: courage pays off. Here are some six ideas for bringing Roosevelt’s sense of bravery to the job:

1. Differentiate between smart risk and silly risk. We would never recommend that you walk into a meeting unprepared, take an overly aggressive position, or give your boss an ultimatum. While these are risks, they are not smart ones. A smart risk pushes you slightly out of your comfort zone without pushing others out of theirs. Smart risks include asking for the sale, asking for the promotion, or asking for more responsibility. A manager, coach or mentor can be very helpful in encouraging you to take smart risks.

“There are lots of people out there who are taking risks and doing interesting things every day. Spend more time with them and you will find their courage is contagious.”

2. Have a strong vision of what you want. I used to be terrified of needles and would do everything in my power to avoid them. Then, when I wanted to have children, I had to have needles almost every day. Suddenly they were not as scary, as my clear vision of family life trumped my fear. The same thing happens at work. You might be terrified of public speaking, but if you want to take on more interesting work in your field, the opportunity to keynote at a conference will help you get over your fears. Have a clear vision of what you want, write it down, and tape it someplace prominent. The daily risks you must take to get you where you want to go will not seem as scary.

3. Practice makes perfect. You can practice courage by taking small risks on a regular basis. This could mean anything from asking to be part of a new project to writing an article for an industry publication or offering to mentor a new employee. Take on small stretch goals and then climb, jump, or borrow a ladder to reach them on a regular basis. The more you do, the more you’ll get used to feeling brave.

4. Courage can be borrowed. In a third-century BC parable from Zhan Guo Ce, a fox is caught by a hungry tiger. The fox, trying to figure out a way to save himself, tells the tiger that he is king of the beasts and should not be eaten. The tiger does not believe the much smaller animal so the fox challenges him to follow him through the forest and see how the other animals react. The two set off together and the other animals, seeing the tiger, run away in fear. The fox takes full credit for their fearful response and the tiger, believing him, spares his life. While this parable mainly seems to be about the gullibility of tigers, it also shows how we can borrow courage. Surrounding ourselves with courageous people can help us to feel more bold. We can attend conferences with like-minded people, join a peer group, or invite someone we admire for lunch. There are lots of people out there who are taking risks and doing interesting things every day. Spend more time with them and you will find their courage is contagious.

5. Practice courage in your personal life. If you are nervous taking risks at work because the stakes feel too high, start building those courage muscles at home. Take the microphone on karaoke night, volunteer for that school committee, or sign up for ziplining. If you learn the benefit of taking calculated risks in your personal life, you’ll be more comfortable taking them at work.

6. Assess the risk. Part of what makes bold actions scary is the inherent downside. Before doing something brave, contemplate what might go wrong. Look at the potential problems and their causes, then see how you might prevent them, or minimize their impact. Assessing risk can help you be more courageous, as it’s easier to take a leap of faith when you are fairly certain it won’t lead to disaster.

We hope you do something today to flex your courage muscles. It is fun, makes your job more interesting, and can serve to inspire others. Most people regret what they don’t do more than what they do, so take a page from Eleanor and do that thing that scares you just a bit.


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