The Case for Taking Risks as a Leader

In Leadership by Jamie TurnerLeave a Comment

By Marty Strong

Here we are again, discussing the single greatest impediment to nimble leadership and creative thinking in general — risk taking.

It’s a cliché, but the fear of failure paradigm is real. Countless studies suggest this fear is much stronger than our desire to win or gain something of value.

Humans in general are more likely to choose safety over personal gain if that choice involves any risk to themselves physically or risks their status quo position of comfort. Leaders are no exception to this paradigm.

Take a look at the greatest leaders of history, in art, war, business, and science. Alexander the Great, Leonardo Di Vinci, Michelangelo, Napoleon, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, and others were all young when they created their breakthroughs. Much of the rest of their lives were spent living up to their early creative successes.

Why do you think this happens? I believe it was their attitude toward risk taking. 

Young people have less to lose materially, less personal status at risk, and they do not have a long list of failures to dissuade them from challenging the world.

This isn’t biological in the sense that an older person can also think wild thoughts and take great risks if they wanted to, they just don’t.

So, it is a mindset thing.

That’s the good news if you are more than thirty years old. There are examples of this; Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson, to name two. If your risk tolerance is tied to retaining your title, your material wealth, or your job, you will be reluctant to experiment because to do experimentation correctly you must fail to win.  

Leaders Lead – Managers Manage

There are hundreds of definitions describing what leadership is and what it is not. In my opinion, most of the enlightened value in studying leadership, what leadership is and who in history are shining examples of this trait, can be found by looking at the world before the industrial revolution.

That explosion of human productivity created a new class of worker responsible for far more than a corner store or the family farm. It created the age of professional management.

Professional management is more than an ancient caste system of merchants and bureaucrats administering the affairs and properties of the wealthy or ruling class. Professionals are trained and groom with an assembly line of schools and curriculum aimed at standardizing terms, historical references, and role definitions sufficient to allow a newly minted manager to be plugged into a modern organization.

There are still examples of managers working their way up the ladder, doing it all through on the job training, but they too are being held to the standard of professional management. One of the things formal schooling and on the job management have in common, no one is taught that taking risks is a good thing. So, what is the point in calling this truth out? You need to know the difference between being a professional manager and being a leader.

In my opinion and, based on my years of experience as both a manager and a leader, the distinction is clear. I’ve performed in both roles, alternating back and forth as I changed jobs or as I was elevated within large corporations. I know they are two different positions with different duties and responsibilities. Why then has this distinction become blurred to the point where the job of manager and leader are considered nearly synonymous?

Managers manage. My definition of management is straightforward; managers manage systems and processes and the human resources associated with those systems and processes. The performance metrics and the performance path are clear. Managers must follow policies and procedures. Protocols, rules, and regulations are put in place to maintain (and here’s the punchline) order. We need great managers but being a manager doesn’t qualify you to be a leader.

Breaking Glass

When I was a young SEAL there was a cartoon depicting a SEAL combat doll, fully covered in weapons and bullets, camouflaged from head to toe, wearing a stern look. This doll was on a round platform, and it was covered in a clear glass shell. The caption read; U.S. Navy SEAL – break glass in case of war.

This was soon after the end of the Vietnam war and the Navy was cleaning up its act. Clean uniforms and clean-shaven warriors were the standard again, gone were the loose, cowboy antics of the wartime SEALs.

The Navy even confiscated all the modified weapons we held, there would be no deviation from regulations going forward. Businesses and other non-profit organizations go through cycles or stringent adherence to rules followed eventually by more fluid methods of getting things done. Years after leaving the SEALs I often wondered why the gyration? Why not stabilize as a rigid rule oriented entity or let loose and stay that way?

I’ve concluded that challenges, true challenges, are defined by their power to disrupt or defeat the status quo posture.

Standards, rules, procedures, these are useful concepts, but they are historical footnotes of the way the last set of challenges were handled. They are rarely flexible or forward looking and that’s how organizations get tripped up. What is a manager to do? The existing systems and processes, even the people, are failing to cope. This is when leadership is needed. This is when leadership in your world is defined. It’s time to break glass!

So, we need managers and even in crisis, managers are useful assets. Leaders step up to face chaos and crisis brought about by a failure of existing capabilities and capacity to handle the issue at hand. Leaders are going to assess the challenges objectively and analyze possible solutions before breaking conventions by applying those solutions, regardless of their alignment with existing norms. A manager who is comfortable with this is a manager with true leadership qualities. A manager who is willing to step away from the rules and create a new path to success is in fact a leader.

When they are needed, we are all wise to let leaders lead and managers manage. Task focus, task resource, solve the crisis, survive the chaos, and then let the managers clean up the mess and document the new way of doing things. Sounds easy, right? It doesn’t happen this way very often. The reason is simple, there are very few true leaders among us.

I have watched this play out in the military, the investment world, politics, and in for-profit businesses. I’ve pinpointed the reason why leaders are rare, and it might surprise you. I contend that there are many potential leaders all around us, every day. People who, for whatever reason, can step up and make the right things happen when others are in a state of shock.

The issue is risk. Personal risk. Most organizations are “led” by managers happy to wait “while Rome burns,” assured by their faith in systems and processes that their management team will prevail. These senior “leaders” will not tolerate, support, or endorse true leadership. True leadership requires courage, creativity, poise, and a willingness to take risks. Taking risks isn’t how most senior managers ascend to the top of their organizational charts.

Avoiding or eliminating risk was the way senior “leaders” made their way. To these folks, true leaders are a virus whose open mindedness, creativity, and wanton disregard for the rules and traditions, mark them as a threat. True leaders are not allowed to grow let alone flourish, especially in large organizations.

Understanding management science is important but good leaders pay for their keep by staying on their toes. Being willing to trend forward in their systems, processes, and methodology. If you are ready to act this way, then you are already a leader, get ready to break some glass!

Marty Strong is a retired Navy SEAL, CEO, speaker, and the author of Be Visionary: Strategic Leadership in the Age of Optimization.

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