Leading in Times of Risk

Are you comfortable with risky or edgy situations? As a leader, should you be? If you were, would it help you become a better leader?  

I have to say that I love a good challenge and if there is risk involved, then I love it even more. I don't know why I love risk so much.  It could have been the influence of my brother when I was young as we repelled out of 70-foot oak trees.  It could have been the influence from my time in college when I jumped off of 40-foot cliffs in Horseshoe Beach, Bermuda.  It could have been the influence  from my time in the Marine Corps where we did all sorts of training with guns and explosives.  What I do know is that all of this "risky" experience has helped me understand that when you take risks, there are rewards that come with them.  This not only helped prepare me for life's risks ahead, but also for taking on risks when I think it is most important: when I am leading people.

Greg Smith, a former CIO and now consultant, wrote about a backpacking adventure in the high country of the Northwest that he went on.  He reached the end of daylight and still had a hard section to hike along the water on rocks as the tide was coming in.  He had to overcome both mental and physical challenges, but in the end, he made it to his destination.  After this experience, he wrote in his blog,  "Accomplishment is a powerful reward, but it only comes from your willingness to tackle a challenge. It is the same in your professional career, and what I have always sought out. I’m sure I will take on a few more professional challenges but I will also continue to balance life with wilderness challenges to ensure the fulfillment of more dreams."  You can read about his full adventure in his LinkedIn blog, Reflections.

“Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.”
— T.S. Eliot

This concept of reward that Greg ties in to the way he felt in his accomplishment is very well put; for you to even know what accomplishment feels like there has to be a willingness to take a risk which also means you may have to find out what your body can physically do. I have to agree that the lessons that I have learned in all my wilderness experiences—the ones that have had the greatest impact—have been the ones concerning challenges, risks and rewards.  I believe that it has been these lessons that have continued to assist me in my influence on my family, my peers and those I have had the opportunity to lead.  

Mike Thompson, a good friend of mine and a well-known writer, wrote in his book The Anywhere Leader about how an Anywhere Leader is daring.  He writes, 

The best leaders are those who push close to the edge without going over it... What's interesting is that these leaders, though courageous, aren't  necessarily comfortable in positions of risk. They may push to the edge, but they probably have a few sweat beads on their foreheads when they do. They are as concerned with their safety and with their security as anyone else would be. They weren't born with some daring chromosome that made them fearless. But despite some elements of discomfort, nervousness-even fear-they are compelled to act in daring ways for the sake of progress.

I love how Mike talks about having your eye on the end goal:  "for the sake of progress."  This is true especially in the wilderness on that cliff's edge; it may be just you, but I think that it is by experiencing the risks individually that you are able to step out in times of risk in the workplace or in your home for the sake of the team, organization or, even more importantly, for your family.  

This summer, I was visiting Denver with some colleagues of mine and we decided to drive to the top of Lookout Mountain.  On the north side there is an area where the cliffs are just on the other side of some trees.  As we all began to see the view, I began to jog, then run through the trees, right up to the edge of the cliff.  It was an amazing view of the foothills of Golden, CO.  The sun was on my face and the wind was coming right up the cliff from below.  I was in heaven.  Camille, one of my colleagues and very close friends, was not very happy that I ran up to the edge that quickly and yelled at me to stop.  I didn't get her to run to the edge, but I did convince her to come to the edge to experience the view and I know she loved it. I am not fearful of the cliff's edge, maybe due to my faith or experience, but I also know how to be careful and to weigh out the cost if I am not. 

How does this picture make you feel?  Are you first inclined to think about how close to the edge you are? Or are you drawn into the incredible view? The answer may tell you how comfortable you are about taking risks. 

How does this picture make you feel?  Are you first inclined to think about how close to the edge you are? Or are you drawn into the incredible view? The answer may tell you how comfortable you are about taking risks. 

When was the last time you stood on the "cliff's" edge, the last time you took a risk?  When was the last time you said what you really believed in a meeting instead of holding back? When was the last time you went to your spouse, son or daughter when you had a disagreement and asked for forgiveness to restore your relationship?  When was the last time you admitted that you were wrong?  My challenge to you is to think back and reflect this week on how "edgy" your leadership really was.  If you held back for some reason, dig deep within you and try to be a little riskier this week.  I want to encourage you that with risk comes reward. I only know this through personal experience and the reward is an amazing feeling that I hope you get a chance to feel more and more as you allow yourself to be more vulnerable in taking risks.  Believe me, I am not perfect at this yet either and actually have some work to do this week.  Let's get a little closer to the edge this week together.  

The video below is one that my son shared with me of some amazingly risky people cliff jumping in Italy; something my son and I dream of doing someday because we know that it is risky, but we also know that the reward has to be unbelievably amazing.