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Globe and Mail reporter Barrie McKenna.The Globe and Mail

Maybe you've seen clips of U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren ripping into Wells Fargo chief executive John Stumpf.

During a 10-plus-minute interrogation at a Senate banking committee hearing last week, Ms. Warren lambastes Mr. Stumpf for failing to take personal responsibility for a scandal involving two million bogus bank and credit-card accounts set up without customer approval.

"Your definition of accountability is to push this on your low-level employees," Ms. Warren tells the banker. "This is gutless leadership."

Courage – or rather the lack of it – is similarly at the heart of new research on corporate behaviour by Deloitte Canada. Companies in this country, Deloitte concludes, are failing to innovate and invest because too many lack the key ingredients of courageous decision-making, including a willingness to buck the status quo, take calculated risks and accept personal responsibility.

The courage deficit is imposing a hefty cost on the Canadian economy.

"Far too many Canadian companies lack the courage necessary to make bold decisions in the face of uncertainty and risk," concludes the report being released Monday. "They shy away from making key investments and executing dynamic strategies, unwilling to accept short-term challenge for the long-term opportunity. As a result, they – and Canada's economy – remain in low gear."

The truly courageous are a rare breed. Based on a survey of 1,200 business leaders, Deloitte categorizes just 11 per cent of Canadian companies as courageous. A majority (57 per cent) are either fearful or hesitant.

Or, as Ms. Warren would put it, gutless.

"This research proves that courage in business is critical and it's quantifiable," Deloitte Canada chief executive Frank Vettese said in an interview. "It's the missing factor."

Deloitte says Corporate Canada's "alarming" courage deficit is putting prosperity at risk as the economy grapples with a raft of significant challenges, including low resource prices, stalled exports and technological disruption.

"It's a journey and it's not going to happen overnight, " Mr. Vettese says. "But it's not too late for us."

Policy experts have long grappled with the mystery of why Canadian businesses are badly underinvesting in such things as training, new products, technology and research and development.

In a recent speech, Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz said companies aren't putting their cash to work right now because the future looks so uncertain, and many have unrealistic expectations of what their investments will generate.

The Deloitte research suggests something more profound and uniquely Canadian may also be at work. An earlier 2011 survey by Deloitte found that Canadian business leaders are significantly more risk-averse than their U.S. counterparts.

But it goes beyond just risk-taking. Deloitte identifies five attributes of corporate courage – challenging the status quo, taking calculated risks, doing what's right over the long haul, taking personal responsibility and encouraging diversity of people and ideas.

"This is something that is fixable," Mr. Vettese insists.

Courageous companies perform markedly better than the rest of the pack on a host of measures. They're more likely to show revenue growth, hire, invest in R&D and introduce new products, according to the Deloitte report, The Future Belongs to the Bold.

Unfortunately, nearly half of companies may be deluding themselves. They think they're courageous, but they're not. Forty-four per cent of companies say they're courageous, but only 11 per cent truly are.

"Because these companies suffer from such an inaccurate self-perception, they continually fail to see the need to take corrective action," the report says.

Interestingly, private companies tend to be more courageous than publicly traded companies – a trend that Mr. Vettese attributes to less scrutiny of their actions. Deloitte, however, did not track differences between industries, and can't say if the preponderance of protected and regulated sectors might also affect results.

There is also a lesson here for governments. Try as they may to kick-start economic activity in a slow growth world, only companies can make it happen.

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