Some people are born risk takers. Others simply play it safe. When it comes to leadership, however, risk-taking should come with the territory. Why is risk-taking an important principle of leadership? Before we answer that question, let me give you three names: George Washington, Thomas Edison, and Steve Jobs.
Obviously these men led very different careers and lifestyles, but the one trait these leaders all shared is the skill of risk-taking.
We’re all well familiar with George Washington’s roles as the leader of the Continental army against the British forces in the American Revolution and as the first President of the United States. Throughout his life, he took calculated risks to better the country, and once was quoted as saying, “the good of my country requires my reputation to be put at risk.” As you know, the rest is history.
Thomas Edison realized that before one can succeed sometimes you have to fail. And fail miserably, which he did during his process to invent the light bulb. It took him about 10,000 experiments to invent the perfect set-up for the electric light bulb. He took a risk on his idea, and thankfully he did, because he made our world that much brighter.
And Steve Jobs. Much has been written about him since his passing, but a key take away from his extraordinary career is that he took big risks. Arguably his biggest risk was when Apple developed the iPhone, or maybe it was the iPad – either way, both products completely changed technology, as we know it.
If your idea of taking a risk is buying a latte instead of making coffee at home, you might need to reevaluate your risk-taking capability as a leader. After all, leaders create the strategic initiatives of their organizations. Effective leaders are bold thinkers and take calculated risks. This quality goes a long way toward motivating your colleagues to accomplish the innovative changes you have envisioned.
If you’re content remaining in a cautious, risk-adverse comfort zone, the reality is that you might be lacking self-confidence. You may also display and encourage a style of leadership that is conservative, and have a low tolerance for ambiguity.
Now when you do take risks, this means you are open to new ideas and opportunities and are tenacious when you encounter resistance. In addition, you probably push your team to take risks and create an environment that values “out of the box” thinking and creative problem solving.
Here are some tips on how to venture outside of your comfort zone.
Take a look at your style to determine how risk averse you are. What is your level of tolerance for ambiguity? What prevents you from taking risks? A personal preference or personality type inventory will give you some clues.
Determine what constitutes acceptable risks. Risk where you have support.
Take risks in stages; set risk milestones. Break down risks to manage them more effectively. Minimize the costs of failure.
Challenge your team members to find ways of improving business and work processes. Use various forums (e.g., team meetings, private conversations, performance plans) to stimulate and reinforce the need to make continuous improvements.
When considering a change, think of it as a risk that needs to be assessed and planned for. As with any risk, assess the risk of doing it and not doing it.
Take up a new hobby, or sign up for a class in a field that is very different from yours. Stretch yourself to take risks in areas that are not crucial to your work.
You may find that risk-taking becomes more comfortable and even exciting with practice. Is there something that you have always wanted to try but didn’t because you were afraid to fail? Now is the time. After all, I think it worked out pretty well for Steve Jobs.