I have learned a lot of lessons through ski jumping. One lesson I learned a few years ago was that taking risks was critical for improvement in the sport. I must have been very risky at the beginning, because I would often come home from practice with a new set of bruises or scrapes. Of course, my caring wife Kathy would always ask, “did you fall today?”
After a while, I would go for days without a fall…then weeks…and then months. After a while, it started to bother me when, following each practice, Kathy would continue to ask me if I fell. Eventually, because of the lessons I learned in my professional life, I realized that not falling didn’t mean I was getting better–it just meant I wasn’t stretching myself or getting out of my comfort zone. I had stopped taking risks, and I should have recognized it sooner.
I believe that a willingness to take risks is one of, if not the most, important aspects of leadership. Even early into my career, I remember observing the people in leadership positions in my orbit. Aside from their personal styles, the one big thing that separated great leaders from the ones who just occupied the office was their tolerance for risk.
Sometimes, though, when people are thrust into leadership positions, the fear of losing the position causes them to begin avoiding the very things that made them strong to begin with. I’ve seen this happen to a lot of people in leadership positions. It doesn’t always start this way, but over time, it is easy to fall into a pattern in which maintaining the status quo, or “not rocking the boat” becomes more appealing than the alternative.
Leaders who spend too much time watching their back are not looking forward. After all, a willingness to try new things, to step out of the comfort zone, to continue despite fear, and embrace failure, are critical behaviors for change agents, decision-makers and advocates.
I am not saying that leaders should shuck common sense and behave in ways that make the people around them quiver. I am, however, suggesting that it is important to remember why we got into leadership positions in the first place and to keep that mindset at the forefront of our daily routine.
Below are a few strategies I use that support risk tolerance about which I believe every leader should be aware:
- Don’t let others’ opinion about risk limit yours. Heeding advice is smart, and so is making conscious decisions about when to put yourself out there and when to do things no one has done before.
- Take sides when it is important. Sometimes you have to take sides in order to do what you believe is right, despite the fact you may alienate or upset others. The credibility you’ll gain from others who share your beliefs will far outweigh the loss of popularity among others who do not.
- Don’t be afraid to be conspicuous. I’ve met a lot of leaders who take great care to keep their personal and professional life separate. Certainly, leaders in public positions should be mindful of their behavior in public. Being thrown out of the local pub probably won’t help grow credibility. But if there are things about which you get charged up–whether it’s bird watching, rock hounding, sci fi–or if you’re perfectly comfortable wearing a kilt on St. Paddy’s Day–then show it. The world needs more leaders to show their inner geek so that it’s ok for everyone else to show theirs!
- Promote risk tolerance among the people you lead. This starts with a belief that there is almost always more than one right answer. Unless the safety of others or ethics are being compromised, encourage rather than stifle.
To draw a parallel between my opening, taking risks is critical for our improvement as leaders, not to mention as a species. A leader who doesn’t occasionally experience bruises and scrapes is probably playing it safe and not really leading. That’s why I believe that the most important question you can ask yourself at the end of every day is, “Did you fall today?”