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Walking the CEO Tightrope: Balancing Courage and Survival

By Seth Kaufman

Walking the CEO Tightrope: Balancing Courage and Survival.

How much courage is too much courage for a CEO?

For leaders who want to stay leaders, it’s an important strategic question.

It takes moxie to push for transformational innovation, navigate board and shareholder expectations and set company benchmarks. But acts of bravery can have adverse outcomes when they don’t go as planned.

According to former CEO David Pyott, who built Allergan into a pharmaceutical and medical device giant over 17 years, smart leaders don’t need super-hero skills to thrive and survive — they need to pick and compartmentalize their battles.


“You can’t fight battles on every front and be successful,” Pyott told Vanguard founder Ken Banta at a recent dialogue. “I always take the view that you should tackle them one by one. Or, if it can’t be done sequentially, divide it up into pieces, so that you could be working very, very closely on battle one, while just quietly preparing whatever it takes to get into battle two. Everything I do is try to break down the pile into pieces, both for myself and then equally for your colleagues — because obviously, there’s the power of a group.”

But Pyott, currently the chairman of the London Business School, urges leaders to examine the risk and rewards of a brave endeavor. “With courage, you have to also ask yourself, ‘When does it turn into stupidity?’ Because losing isn’t really very pleasant. Occasionally, if you lose something minor, it doesn’t matter. But if you keep losing, you’re going to lose the confidence of the team, lose the confidence of the board, lose the confidence of the investors, whatever it might be. So somewhere in the analysis, concentrate on the strong points, and build them up.”

Listen to the podcast, read the full transcript, or watch the video to learn more about the legendary CEO’s journey and management insights.

These thoughts are taken from a dialogue conducted on Apr 21, 2021. Participants may have changed companies and/or titles since then.


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