Courage! It sounds an easy quality to possess, bringing with it the dreams of V.C.s, and bestowing on every man worth the name the power to endure physical danger. But courage in business is a more complex affair. It presupposes a logical dilemma which can only be escaped in the field of practice.
The man who has nothing but courage easily lets this quality turn into mere stubbornness, and a crass obstinacy is as much a hindrance to business success as a moral weakness. Yet to the man who does not possess moral courage the most brilliant abilities may prove utterly useless. There is the folly of resistance and the folly of complaisance. There is the tendency towards eternal compromise and the desire for futile battle. Until the mind of youth has adjusted itself between the two extremes and formed a technique which is not so much independent of either tendency as inclusive of both, youth cannot hope for great success.
The evils which pure stubbornness brings in its train are perfectly clear. Men cling to a business indefinitely in the fond wish that a loss may yet be turned into a profit. They hope on for a better day which their intelligence tells them will never dawn. For this attitude of mind stupidity is a better word than stubbornness, and a far better word than courage. When reason and judgment bid us give up the immediate battle and start afresh on some new line, it is intellectual cowardice, not moral courage, which bids us persevere. This obstinacy is the reverse of the shield of which courage is the shining emblem— for courage in its very essence can never be divorced from judgment.
But it is easy for the character to run to the other extreme. There is a well-known type of Jewish business man who never succeeds because he is always too ready to compromise before the goal of a transaction has been attained. To such a mind the certainty of half a loaf is always better than the probability of a whole one.
One merely mentions the type to accentuate the paradox. Great affairs above all things require for their successful conduct that class of mind which is eminently sensitive to the drift of events, to the characters or changing views of friends and opponents, to a careful avoidance of that rigidity of standpoint which stamps the doctrinaire or the mule. The mind of success must be receptive and plastic. It must know by the receptivity of its capacities whether it is paddling against the tide or with it.
But it is perfectly clear that this quality in the man of affairs, which is akin to the artistic temperament, may very easily degenerate into mere pliability. Never fight, always negotiate for a remnant of the profits, becomes the rule of life. At each stage in the career the primroses will beckon more attractively towards the bonfire, and the uphill path of contest look more stony and unattractive. In this process the intellect may remain unimpaired, but the moral fibre degenerates.
I once had to make a choice of this nature in the days of my youth when I was forming the Canada Cement Company. One of the concerns offered for sale to the combine was valued at far too high a price. In fact, it was obvious that only by selling it at this over-valuation could its debts be paid. The president of this overvalued concern was connected with the most powerful group of financiers that Canada has ever seen. Their smile would mean fortune to a young man, and their frown ruin to men of lesser position. The loss of including an unproductive concern at an unfair price would have been little to me personally—but it would have saddled the new amalgamated industry and the investors with a liability instead of an asset. It was certainly far easier to be pliable than to be firm. Every kind of private pressure was brought to bear on me to accede to the purchase of the property.
When this failed, all the immense engines for the formation of public opinion which were at the disposal of the opposing forces were directed against me in the form of vulgar abuse. And that attack was very cleverly directed. It made no mention of my refusal to buy a certain mill for the combine at an excessive cost to the shareholding public. On the contrary, those who had failed to induce me to break faith with the investing public appealed to that public to condemn me for forming a Trust.
I am prepared now to confess that I was bitterly hurt and injured by the injustice of these attacks. But I regret nothing. Why? Because these early violent criticisms taught me to treat ferocious onslaughts in later life with complete indifference. A certain kind of purely cynical intelligence would hold that I should have been far wiser to adopt the pliable rôle. But that innate judgment which dwells in the recesses of the mind tells me that my whole capacity for action in affairs would have been destroyed by the moral collapse of yielding to that threat. Pliability would have become a habit rather than a matter of judgment and will, for fortitude only comes by practice.
Every young man who enters business will at some time or another meet a similar crisis which will determine the bias of his career and dictate his habitual technique in negotiation.
But he may well exclaim, "How do you help me? You say that courage may be stubbornness and even stupidity—and compromise a mere form of cowardice or weakness. Where is the true courage which yet admits of compromise to be found? It is the old question: How can firmness be combined with adaptability to circumstances? There is no answer except that the two qualities must be made to run concurrently in the mind. One must be responsive to the world, and yet sensible of one's own personality. It is only the special circumstance of a grave crisis which will put a young man to this crucial test of judgment. The case will have to be judged on its merits, and yet the final decision will affect the whole of his career. But one practical piece of advice can be given. Never bully, and never talk about the whip-hand—it is a word not used in big business.
The view of the intellect often turns towards compromise when the direction of the character is towards battle. Such a conflict of tendencies is most likely to lead to the wise result. The fusion of firmness with a careful weighing of the risks will best attain the real decision which is known as courage. The intellectual judgment will be balanced by the moral side. Any man who could attain this perfect balance between these two parallel sides of his mind would have attained, at a single stroke, all that is required to make him eminent in any walk of life. One regards perfection, but cannot attain it. None the less, it is out of this struggle to combine a sense of proportion with an innate hardihood that true courage is born; and courage is success.
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