Executive Heroes and Goats

Courage is contagious. When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others are often stiffened.
-- Billy Graham

I'm not sure how correct Billy Graham is. It seems to me that in the corporate boardrooms of America, the courage that has been exercised over the years has not exactly resulted in an epidemic of imitators. But perhaps that's asking too much. Perhaps the courage of some has indeed led to more bravery in corporate circles. (This would be despite a tendency of many of us to think, as Mason Cooley noted, "Courage, determination, and hard work are all very nice, but not so nice as an oil well in the backyard.")

Courage is not a concept discussed often in the financial world. Yet it can make an enormous difference in how a company fares. Courage can lead to brave decisions to enter new business lines. It can inspire employees and attract customers. It can simply offer the chance to sleep soundly, with a clear conscience. I read an interesting roundup the other day in Fast Company magazine of 10 courageous leaders in 2004-2005 and 10 corresponding "cowards of the year." I want to share some of them with you here.

The top of the heap
Here are a few of the courageous 10:

  • Hannah Jones, vice president of corporate responsibility at Nike (NYSE: NKE  ) , released an un-whitewashed report detailing undesirable practices, such as child labor and sexual harassment, among the company's suppliers. This is a big first step toward correcting these problems.

  • At Motorola (NYSE: MOT  ) , management led by Chris Galvin and now Ed Zander was brave enough to shed the company's semiconductor business and make a big bet on design. As a result, Motorola's Razr phone turned out to be a huge -- and profitable -- hit for the company.

  • When Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL  ) bought out PeopleSoft, the acquiree's CEO, David Duffield, offered $10,000 from his own pocket to any laid-off employee making less than $150,000 per year. Fast Company noted that this "stands in stark contrast to many chiefs who grab the golden parachute and merely wave good-bye."

The un-courageous
And here are some of the not-so-courageous:

  • Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) CEO Steve Ballmer was cited for "bowing to pressure from a minister" and backing off on support for gay-rights legislation, and then later flip-flopping again on the topic. In a CNET interview, Ballmer explained, "I decided that anti-discrimination in the workplace was mission-critical. ... We do not discriminate, but our employees have partners and significant others. We need to make sure they can find work. ... Our employees ... of all races and all sexual orientation ... need access to housing, financial services, banking services, so I decided to take a position, and we'll be firm on it." I'm glad he decided that discrimination is a very bad thing, but I would hope that a true leader might just know that instead of deciding it.

  • General Motors (NYSE: GM  ) CEO G. Richard Wagoner canceled $20 million he was going to spend on advertising in the Los Angeles Times because the paper wasn't portraying the company positively enough. Well, gee, it can be hard to shine a positive light on three consecutive quarters of net losses. (Learn more about GM's troubles -- and don't be surprised if you don't see GM advertising at Fool.com.)

  • Another not-so-courageous leader cited was Jeff Brown of video-game maker Electronic Arts (Nasdaq: ERTS  ) . Apparently, when criticized for running a "white-collar sweatshop," he "grudgingly" said he'd pay artists and developers overtime but then said he might outsource workers' jobs.

Whom do you admire?
When I think of courage in the corporate world, I often think of Johnson &Johnson (NYSE: JNJ  ) , which handled its 1982 Tylenol crisis very admirably. After eight people died from cyanide-laced pills, J&J took a big financial hit by quickly recalling 30 million bottles. It then redesigned the container to be more tamper-resistant.

I wrote earlier this year about some other admirable businesses, recapping Business Ethics magazine's award winners. Gap (NYSE: GPS  ) , for example, mirrored Nike's courage in reporting on its own room for improvement in its suppliers' factory conditions.

Which managers do you respect greatly for their courage? Share their stories with us so that we may all be inspired.

Look for courage when investing
When you invest, you might want to look for companies that are doing the right thing. (Many companies doing the wrong thing eventually pay a price for it.) You might find them by reading widely in the financial press, something that many of us Fools enjoy doing. Or you might simply opt to park some of your money in a mutual fund that focuses on social responsibility. In our Champion Funds newsletter, analyst Shannon Zimmerman recommended one such fund back in February, and it's already up 8%, versus 2% for the S&P 500 in the same time period. Better still, many of the funds he recommends are managed by smart people with strong ethical principles.

Electronic Arts is aMotley Fool Stock Advisornewsletter recommendation.

SelenaMaranjian'sfavorite discussion boards include Book Club, Eclectic Library, and Card & Board Games. She owns shares of Microsoft and Johnson & Johnson. For more about Selena, viewher bio and her profile. You might also be interested in these books she has written or co-written:The Motley Fool Money GuideandThe Motley Fool Investment Guide for Teens. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.


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