Lynn Good talks courage

Editor’s note: The following are excerpts from Duke Energy President and CEO Lynn Good’s speech at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School graduation on Sunday.

“I’m a firm believer that courage is a learnable skill, and everyone has the capacity for it.

“It’s a muscle that we develop over many years and through many difficult situations.

“And, as we hone our courage to lead, we become more adept at confronting reality head-on.

“Here’s an example of what I mean:

The courage to ask for help

“If you’ve kept up with Ford Motor Company or read the book, ‘American Icon,’ then you’re familiar with the name Alan Mulally.

“Mulally took over as Ford’s CEO in 2006 when the company was on the brink of bankruptcy.

“In early meetings, his leaders offered promising updates about their business units, labeling everything ‘green’ – meaning everything was on track.

“Mulally didn’t buy this.

“How could everything be ‘green’ if the company was losing $17 billion a year?

“Within the first few weeks, one member of the senior team finally labeled something red – the launch of the Ford Edge sport utility vehicle.

“So, what did Mulally do? He rewarded the executive with applause and asked him how the team could help.

“Mark Fields demonstrated courageous leadership. He had the capacity and humility to ask for help.

“So, how did this story end? Well, Ford is once again making a profit. And, earlier this month, the company announced that Mark Fields would succeed Alan Mulally upon his retirement this summer.

“That’s a happy ending. But the outcome isn’t always so great.

The courage to ‘let it go’

“Sometimes we need the courage to just let go and move on.

“For me, that happened over a decade ago when I was a partner at Arthur Andersen.

“I originally joined the firm because Arthur Andersen was the crème de la crème, and I wanted the challenge.

“It was an extraordinary work experience – fast-paced and competitive, involving many industries.

“Arthur Andersen was also the source of my biggest professional heartbreak.

“That heartbreak occurred in 2002, when the firm was under attack for its role in the collapse of Enron.

“At the time, Arthur Andersen was a firm of 100,000 professionals, yet only a handful worked on the Enron account, and their actions led to its demise.

“I vividly remember a midnight conference call with Andersen partners from around the world.

“My husband stayed up with me that night to listen to the call.

“After hearing the firm would be indicted, he looked at me and said, ‘Lynn, it’s over.’

“I felt as if my world had turned upside-down. That everything I’d worked for, everything I’d built over two decades, had disappeared.

“As you can imagine, I went through every emotion in the book – shock, disbelief, sorrow, anger, fear.

“In the weeks and months that followed, when I would get in the car to drive to a job that was essentially over, I would say to myself, ‘Let it go.’

“I soon did and transitioned to a new career path – a career path that eventually led me to Duke Energy and my current position, which is, by far, the most challenging, yet most rewarding and fulfilling job of my life.

“So, that period presented a hard but valuable leadership lesson – and one that I didn’t recognize at the time.

“I learned that it takes courage to ‘let it go.’

Explore the possibilities

“Benjamin Zander, a famous conductor and author, has written that you can respond to any situation in one of three ways:

“Resignation, anger or possibility.

“To be courageous, to be an effective leader, we must always choose possibility – and help others to see what’s possible.

“How we navigate these obstacles, the setbacks, the ambiguities in life – and how we continue to march forward – can only be learned through experience and, sometimes, through failure.

“So the challenge for you is to build your courage to lead and to become the kind of leader who will drive change and learn and adapt and grow. Try to bring out the best in yourself and the people around you – no matter what the circumstance.

“Every one of you has the capacity to be a courageous leader. And although there is no magic formula – for me, it is built on a sense of purpose, conviction to do the right thing; a call to action to shape your future, and a call to empower those around you.”