You can’t play it safe and be a leader. I often would prefer to lead from my couch, but that’s hardly leading, and there’s a risk to inertia and doing nothing just as there is from taking action. If you’re going to be a leader, you’re going to do things with the risk of failure, and for even the greatest leaders, you have the potential for spectacular, fall-in-the-pigsty-smell-for-a-week kinds of screw-ups. Most of the best leaders have had these kinds of odoriferous falls more than once.
Some people are naturally more comfortable tackling risks than others, but it is a skill that can be learned. I find it best to have a plan in place for handling risks rather than either the ‘pell-mell run around and do what feels right whenever it occurs to me’ approach or the ‘I’ll sit at home until risk finds’ me scenario.
Time to exercise your risk muscles.
To be more comfortable with risk, you have to be comfortable with fear. If you’re not taking chances, there’s something about the outcome that scares you. The first step away from inertia is to identify–and face–that fear.
Some fears are internal: I won’t be liked, I might fail, I might succeed. Some are tangible: I might lose a lot of money, something could break, someone might die.
Leaders can be balanced in tackling risk rather than be totally reckless. I tend to consider two attributes of the choice in front of me: What is the chance of things going south, and what is the potential gain or loss? If I have to run outside, for example, and I’m only going to be gone a second, what’s the chance that my dog will run outside into the street and get hurt? Pretty darn low; he’s not a runner and hasn’t tried to make a break for it before, and I’ll only be gone a second. But the potential loss? Losing the ‘playing in traffic’ game for good. Small risk, huge potential downside, no real upside…close the damn door.
I’ll take more risk when I’m the only one who will have to deal with the consequence, especially if that result is emotional; my embarrassment doesn’t bother me much if no one else gets hurt. Much harder to take a chance when there’s someone else in the equation.
But if you’re not taking enough risks–and if you’re never failing you’re not taking enough risks–you’re not learning. You don’t need to dwell on your failures. Rather, learn from them, discuss them with your staff, learn what to do differently the next time around. By not taking risks, you’re staying in the present situation, and your competitors and enemies most certainly are not. You will fall behind.
Believe in yourself, who you are and what you know, and understand that you won’t get them all right. Waiting for the time and circumstance to be absolutely perfect is as wasteful and thinking change will happen by itself without your input, and it’ll work out exactly like you hoped. You made the decision to lead, right? Now decide what to do next.
Two steps to successful risk-taking leadership: Take smart and balanced risks and learn from those that don’t work according to plan. The second step is harder: Encourage those on your team to take risks and help them learn when they make mistakes. You’ve got to train up future risk-takers, too. A zero-defect policy with your people means a zero-growth policy.
You can teach your team learns to handle risk. You know the areas where the damage caused by faulty risk-taking would be minimal…start them there. Choose where you’re comfortable and show them where they can make the decisions. Start small and build. Let them experiment with new and better ways to accomplish goals. And then debrief. What worked, what didn’t, what might work with adjustments? Get as many people involved in these debriefs as you can so that everyone learns. Don’t hash it to death. People have to get back to work and not sit in meetings all day. Identify, discuss, implement.
Simple formula for your team: Make a mistake and we’ve all got your back. Repeat that mistake in exactly the same way, you face the consequences.
So take risks when you lead. Learn from the risks you take, both good and bad. Own the results. Fix those that went wrong, and put safeguards in place so that the errors are unlikely to be repeated. Talk with you people so you all learn without having to make the same mistakes.
Sometimes you’ll end up with egg on your face, but sometimes you’ll find the brilliant answer to an elusive problem.