Doug Conant: CEOs Must Find Their Courage

Successful leadership requires many outstanding traits—but courage is the “mother” attribute. Without it, all else fails.

Douglas Conant was hired as CEO of Campbell Soup Company when the company was struggling to meet stakeholder expectations. Within a few short years, he led the company to deliver superior financial performance, world-class employee engagement, and become a recognized leader in corporate social responsibility. In the following excerpt from his book, The Blueprint: 6 Practical Steps to Lift Your Leadership to New Heights (Wiley, March 2020), Conant, founder of ConantLeadership, shares his take on why, for CEOs, courage is “the mother skill.” You can also hear Doug Conant speak live at the CEO Talent Summit, Sept. 24-25.

“Without courage we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.” —Dr. Maya Angelou, American poet and civil rights activist

In the early 1990s, anyone looking at my life from the outside would say things were going well. I had a good job as Director of Strategy at Kraft. I was working for a man I admired, the president of Kraft, Jim Kilts. I was doing a solid job and being recognized for my work. Things could have continued that way for a while and it would have been just fine. Overall, I was happy. But I began to feel a nagging “itch,” a desire to contribute in a more substantial way. It started small and grew stronger. In my role at Kraft, I was advising the people who were running the show. But I felt I was ready to contribute in bigger ways, to be the person conducting the human orchestra of a large team. I realized I enjoyed managing talent and connecting with associates and wanted to engage with more people than the sparse two or three we had on our lean strategy team.

Eventually the itch became impossible to ignore, right as an intriguing opportunity emerged; I was being recruited to become a general manager at Nabisco. Becoming a general manager would allow me to use my talents in a fresh way while pushing me to grow my leadership capacity even further – exactly what I wanted. The job also offered an appealing challenge, the reinvention of Nabisco after the world’s largest leveraged buyout in history, which I found exhilarating. I knew I would have to tell Jim I was leaving the company. The choice was not easy. It would require me to have a difficult conversation with somebody I respected.

Jim had been one of the first people to take a chance on me after I’d gotten fired. We worked well together. I grew from being around him and he pushed me in an enriching way. I could see the impact of my contribution daily. So you might wonder, why leave? Because, with each passing day, the initially hazy thought manifesting itself as an “itch” came more clearly into focus: I was not fulfilled. The good news was, because I’d done the necessary reflection, study, and work, I’d reached a point where I was rooted in who I was, what I believed, and how I hungered to further apply my abilities and experience. Because of that sturdy foundation, I knew that I wanted to do something more.

The Other Side of Fear

You may have heard this adage: “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.” That applied here. I knew that to reach my potential, to achieve what felt right for me, I would have to face Jim first. My future lay just nearby, on the other side of that conversation. When I told Jim the news, just as I expected, he was not pleased. This wasn’t just business; it was personal. There was a close relationship between us and he vocally disagreed with my choice. But I had to go with my gut and follow the new opportunity.

I left and joined Nabisco. It was one of the most pivotal choices I made in my entire career. That decision charted my course: I went on to become president of Nabisco Foods, which laid the groundwork for me to become CEO of Campbell Soup Company and chairman of Avon Products. Although it was hard, leaving Kraft and joining Nabisco was the right decision.

What I learned in that moment, and in many moments since, is that to do what’s right for you, and for others, you must commit to developing courage – not just as a nice-to-have character trait, but as a leadership skill. Without it, you simply will not become the leader you hope to be.

Another Test

As I was being recruited to join Nabisco, my courage was tested again. The general manager job really appealed to me: plenty of tough challenges and opportunities for growth in equal measure. It was perfect. But while I wanted the job, I didn’t need the job; I was still Director of Strategy at Kraft, after all.

My final interview at Nabisco was with the legendary chairman of RJR Nabisco, Lou Gerstner. I went into the interview expecting a fifteen-minute discussion filled with mere formalities. Boy, was I wrong. Lou intended to put me through my paces and he conducted a tough, knock-down, drag-out interview that took me by complete surprise. He didn’t just want to talk to me; he wanted to have a raucous – sometimes adversarial – discussion about what it takes to win in the food industry.

For about twenty minutes, Lou bombarded me with questions that felt like accusations. “You think you have what it takes to get the job done?” he asked, sizing me up, and it didn’t seem like he thought I did. At first, I remained polite, trying to stay calm as I navigated the situation as best I could. The more reserved I was, the more contrary he became.

Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. This wasn’t what I had signed up for, and it had become too contentious. Losing my cool, I said, “Lou, I’m sorry, but, when it comes to the food industry, you don’t know what you’re talking about. And I don’t really need this job. So if you don’t think I’m the right person for it, that’s fine.” I was prepared to walk out of the meeting when a proud smile spread across Lou’s face. “Doug,” Lou said, “I wondered how long it would take for you to have the courage of your convictions.” The conversation took a friendlier turn from there and I got the job.

Turns out, Lou had been prodding me – not to be belligerent, but to make sure I was well anchored in my point-of-view and capable of defending my positions. He wanted to confirm that I had the backbone necessary to lead a division during a time of strife. In that moment, it became clear to me that if I was going to lift my game in the corporate world, I would not only need to be firmly rooted in my beliefs, but I would also need the courage to express and defend those beliefs under scrutiny. I learned a valuable lesson from Lou that day: Having a strong Foundation is only half the battle. You must have the courage to share it with others.

Courage Is the Mother Skill

The Maya Angelou quote that opens this chapter hints at the fact that true leadership competence is contingent upon your ability to develop courage. It’s hard to develop any skill without first strengthening your courage muscle. Courage truly is the “mother” attribute, the “parent” to all the other virtues of successful leadership.

Importantly, the magnitude of your courage is determined by the strength of your Foundation. If you’re not firmly rooted in who you are and what you believe, you won’t be able to stand up for yourself and others when it matters most. And you won’t be able to make bold changes or hard choices. It was only because I was being supported by my own Foundation that I was able to conjure the courage to leave Kraft and discover the rest of the leadership life that was waiting for me.

It’s not easy.

Building on the idea of courage, it helps to acknowledge that no, it’s not easy. It’s hard to be courageous. Courage is difficult and messy – and misunderstood. It doesn’t mean being blindly bold or brash. And it does not mean being fearless. Quite the opposite. The true meaning of courage is feeling all of the challenging and uniquely human emotions – uncertainty, anxiety, and, yes, fear – and going forth to stare that complexity in the face and get the job done anyway. It means smelling smoke and running toward the fire. That’s no small feat. Which is why we sometimes have to look pretty carefully to observe true courage in others, and why we often struggle to find it within ourselves. But we do find it if we try with discipline and consistency. And it’s important to try.

Bringing Courage Down to Earth

Understandably, when we think of courage, we often think of it in its most valorous incarnations – on the battlefield, in the grips of war, when the stakes are unspeakably high. It makes sense to turn our thoughts to the people in our armed forces when we think of brave acts. After all, they risk their lives selflessly for the greater good. But while it’s good to recognize their service and their sacrifice, and pay it the awe and respect it deserves, in the day-to-day, it doesn’t serve us as leaders to put courage on a pedestal. Why? Because we desperately need it back down here on earth, in our everyday reality.

Even when the stakes are not life or death, we need to be able to draw on courage in our much more mundane roles as leaders, friends, parents, and community members. Though we may not be warriors facing battle, we must summon courage every day in our lives and our work if we hope to become exceptional in anything we care about.

Although our jobs may not involve imminent danger, there are always people depending on us for their livelihoods, as we are depending on them for ours. We need each other. To show up for one another in any meaningful way, we must be courageous.

Using Courage to Bring Leadership to Life

To demonstrate why courage is so essential to leadership, consider some of the widely celebrated behaviors of exemplary leadership: integrity, authenticity, tough-mindedness on standards, tender-heartedness with people, passion for performance, and clarity (to name a few). We cannot embody any of these if we do not approach them bravely.

• To lead with integrity: We must have the courage to stand by our principles even when it is very difficult or unpopular. This is not easy. But it is necessary to establish both our character and competence.

To lead with authenticity: We must have the courage to bring our true selves to our interactions. Sometimes, that means being a less-rehearsed, less-polished version of ourselves. Being more transparent and vulnerable in this crucial way helps us to earn trust; we become more relatable by allowing stakeholders to really see us and connect with us.

• To lead with a tough mind on standards: We must have the courage to challenge people to do better and to clearly express when our expectations are both met and not met – even if that means an unpleasant conversation (or two, or three).

• To lead with a tender heart toward people: We must have the courage to let our guard down, to lead with the compassion necessary to understand others, their situation, their goals, and their needs. It means having the courage not to act sometimes and to just listen instead.

• To lead organizations passionately toward purpose: We must have the courage to make our business deeply personal. When we declare the importance of achieving superior outcomes, and connect it to a purpose that is larger than the day-to-day grind of the workplace, we help people feel anchored in work that is meaningful. Being passionate about our work helps spread enthusiasm infectiously throughout our organizations and communities.

• To lead with clarity: We must have the courage to give timely, direct feedback – even when it is uncomfortable. We owe it to people to let them know exactly what is needed from them and where they stand.

Courage as Practice

Clearly, there is an urgent need for courage at the heart of effective leadership. So we’ve got to pursue it as a skill – as part of our leadership development – the same way we would with any other crucial competency. What’s heartening about Maya Angelou’s quote is that she rightly refers to courage as a practice – which means we can cultivate it, strengthen it, and grow it – as long as we are willing to work on it consciously and repeatedly. We must practice courage.

Just One Step

Years ago, I hired Debra Benton, a respected leadership coach, to help me. I wanted to raise my impact in a way that pushed me a little, but still felt authentic to who I am. So I spent the day with her getting some pointers.

Debra noted that, in conversation, I tended to create extra space between myself and others. She encouraged me to take one small step closer to people – just one single step. Debra explained that closing the physical distance would close the emotional distance too, putting others at ease and enabling me to better connect. Although it sounds like such an inconsequential thing, to me – an introvert – it felt very awkward. I didn’t want to encroach on people’s personal space.

Fortunately, my desire to do better outweighed my anxiety and I decided to give it a try. It changed everything. That one tiny tweak, that one step closer, has made an incredible difference to my leadership. It has improved every interaction since and allowed me to engage with people in a more meaningful way. That’s the power of choosing to find ways – small and large – to do things that scare you.

What’s one step you can take? Something as seemingly insignificant as a single step forward might be the practice that unlocks your capacity and impact. That’s what building the courage habit is all about. The more you get comfortable choosing discovery and curiosity over anxiety and avoidance, the better your leadership will become.

Douglas Conant
Douglas Conant has been CEO of Campbell Soup, President of Nabisco Foods and Chairman of Avon Products. He is the founder of ConantLeadership, a mission-driven community of leaders and learners who are championing leadership that works in the 21st century.