On the blog this month, we’re exploring risk: how it shows up in our personal and professional lives, the roles it plays in leadership, and lessons we can learn from it. In this week’s post, we explore the interconnectedness of three main pillars of risk and how they can help propel a leader to greatness.
When was the last time you rode a roller coaster?
Growing up in Northeast Ohio, I was lucky enough to spend many a summer day at Cedar Point, one of the top roller coaster parks in the world. I remember with great fondness (and, perhaps, more than a little nausea) careening down the giant hill of the Magnum—at the time, the tallest, fastest, and steepest complete-circuit coaster. Or “racing” friends in the red train while I rode the blue on the Gemini. Perhaps the best (worst?) and my favorite ride was the Mean Streak. I was 12 when it opened. The tallest wooden coaster ever made. And after every 3-minute-and-13-second-long ride in its shaky carts on its rickety rails, my body positively hummed, and my brain rattled around in my head for the rest of the day.
It was awesome.
In a world defined by constant change and increasing complexity, leadership demands risk. The inherent danger of it. The potential reward of it. Even, like me riding the Mean Streak, the slight nausea of it. Effective leadership is a dynamic balancing act between pushing the boundaries of what’s possible and holding fast to what’s working. And effective leaders understand when each is necessary.
But how do they know? What’s the criteria for determining whether a new venture should be taken? How can a leader be certain that they’re equipped for what’s coming? And, perhaps most important, how do they know they’re ready to take the leap?
The Diagram of Healthy Risk
In the Venn diagram below, we’ve identified three core factors intrinsic to risk-taking: the relative safety from which every risk is taken, the comfort one feels when nothing is at risk, and the risk itself. When these factors overlap and intersect, we can see how they work together to form the sweet spot all leaders are looking for: healthy risk.
Risk + Comfort: Thrill
Thrill is the liminal space occupied by that knot in the pit of your stomach and the kernel of fear in the back of your brain when you feel compelled to take action without knowing the precise outcome. Its spark lights the fire of all great ambition.
Comfort + Safety: Rest
True rest is nestled within the knowledge that all is well, and no harm can come to pass. This is the haven where body, mind, and spirit find respite and renewal.
Safety + Risk: Insight
When one’s primary needs are secure, every new experience becomes an opportunity to learn. Insight is the wisdom and self-awareness gained by honestly reflecting on one’s actions and experiences.
Embracing Risk: The Thrill of the Unknown
Every effective leader has a bit of a thrill-seeker in them. The allure of discovery, the potential of untapped resources, the authority and command that come with mastering a new challenge; these are powerful forces that drive individuals to push their limits and chase moments of exhilaration and victory. For a thrill-seeker, risk isn’t something to be feared, but an opportunity to be seized. Just as an explorer feels that rush pulse through their veins with each step taken on unspoiled ground, a visionary leader finds their thrill in the uncharted territory of business, technology, or society.
But risk for the sake the risk is little more than a hit of adrenaline—whether you’re BASE jumping off a cliff at Angel Falls, taking a strong position on a hot-button issue, or betting your company’s capital on a new venture. It’s when you leverage that risk to help you break free from your comfort zone that it begins to work for you in a healthy way.
Embracing risk requires a mindset that welcomes uncertainty and entertains ambiguity. Instead of fearing it, healthy risk-takers see failure as a necessary part of their growth and development. When risk is less about seeking thrills and more about gaining experience, a leader benefits from their shifting perspective and gains valuable insight, which can help them course correct when needed and refine their leadership style.
Getting Comfortable: The Cozy Trap
For me, “comfort” calls to mind deep leather sofas, thick woolen sweaters, and steaming cups of hot cocoa; the desire to burrow in, to cozy up, to batten down. Comfort is my favorite songs on the radio and sappy movies I know by heart. It’s old family photos and regional dishes. It’s a ratty college sweatshirt and a beat-up book of poetry with a broken spine. It’s everything that brings me solace, ease, and joy.
And if I never had to leave it, I wouldn’t.
But remaining in such a state will lead to stagnation and complacency. Effective leaders use comfort as both a landing pad and a launching pad. It’s actually the secret weapon of healthy risk-taking. When utilized properly, the comfort zone can serve as a safe space in which leaders can recharge, reevaluate, and reimagine. The rest and rejuvenation they find in comfort offers clarity of thought and fuel for the future. When that comfort meets the demand of risk, the leader is prepared not only to seek the thrill but to meet the challenge.
Finding Safety: The Steady Hand
Is any risk possible without first knowing what it means to be safe?
Safety acts as our healthy-risk base camp. From here, we’re able to seek risk with wonder and curiosity, excited by what we may learn along the journey. And to here we return when risk has exhausted us, so that we may regain our energy and prepare for the next trek.
When a leader feels secure and protected, every risk becomes a living lab and learning experience. Whether trial or triumph, the risk is worth it. Learning to anticipate challenges, testing theories and ideas, experimenting with unfamiliar tools and untested methods—all of these are part of the process and made possible by the steadying hand of safety.
The Sweet Spot
Effective leaders thrive within the intersection of risk, safety, and comfort. They possess a willingness to embrace risk, a commitment to learning through experience, and an appreciation for the rejuvenating power of rest. Isolated, each of these factors has the potential to prevent a leader from achieving their vision. Intertwined, they can propel that leader to greatness.
Just picture yourself in wobbly wooden cart, hearing the clack-clack-clack of the massive metal chain beneath your feet ratcheting you closer and closer to the crest of a hill, on the other side of which you know is a 155-foot drop. Beads of sweat are pooling at the base of your neck, just below where you feel the back of your head bounce against the hard, protective pad with each tick of the chain as you climb. You inhale deeply, calming your heart rate and reserving your energy for the next three minutes of madness. You’ve lost sight of the horizon now, and only bright blue sky fills your field of vision. You begin to feel lightheaded and frantically triple check that the seat belt across your lap is secure. As your cart reaches the peak and levels out, you feel weightless for a moment, as time stands still, and the world opens up below. For a fraction of a second, your grip tightens on the bar pinning your legs to the seat, and your stomach is in your throat. Then you throw your hands in the air and feel the rush of the wind against your face and the blood pumping through your veins.
It’s a helluva ride.