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A Blog by Art Dykstra


From My Pad to Yours is about leadership and other topics, and is written by Art Dykstra, the CEO of Trinity Services, Inc.

Risk-Taking

by Art Dykstra | Aug 02, 2017

Those of you who have reached a certain level of physical maturity will no doubt remember the days when playing marbles was a popular warm weather activity. I’m talking about a particular variation of the game—the one where you dug a hole in the ground with the heel of your shoe (smooth gravel was best) and won the game by shooting all of your marbles into the hole on your turn.

My friends sorted themselves into two groups and generally stayed with their preferred teams throughout their elementary school days. They either played for “funs” or for “keeps.” (Such ground rules had to be established before the first marble was tossed.) Some kids only played for funs, either because they were risk-aversive, had only a few marbles to start with, or claimed to be following the religious teaching of their church. Other kids, however, only played for keeps, perhaps because they had more generous allowances, knew someone who worked at a flower shop (and so had an unlimited supply of marbles), or were simply very talented in using their thumbs and forefingers. They were the risk-takers of the playground.

As leaders, we must be willing to take risks and, even though we may be a bit scared, be willing to, in the imagery of author and leadership consultant, John Gardner, be the first bird off the telephone wire. Risk-taking is playing for keeps. Those who want only to “play for funs” invoke the common excuses for avoiding action: We need more data. The staff will never buy it. We’ll lose our funding. I don’t even know where to start. Now is not the right time. My boss will kill me.

In research reported by Azi Fiegenbaum and Howard Thomas in 1988 in “Attitudes Toward Risk and the Risk-Return Paradox,” (Academy of Management Journal), they found that “most firms may be risk-seeking when they are suffering losses or are below targeted aspiration levels. Conversely, they will tend to be risk-aversive following achievement of aspirations and targets.” This behavior follows the “quit while you’re ahead” school of thought. I would argue that even in organizations that aren’t particularly successful, but which keep their heads above water, risk-aversion is prevalent. Only in extreme cases of hardship or catastrophe are they willing to change—when they have nothing left to lose.

However, risk-taking renews both leader and follower. To be alive is to risk something to gain something without knowing the outcome. Of course, risk-taking that doesn’t calculate the potential benefits and liabilities is just as unhealthy as never taking a risk. But the risk-taking culture of most organizations can probably be determined by the way that top leadership answer the question, “How safe do I need to be?”

The need for security, the fear of loss or rejection is contagious and spreads outward, stifling the creative urges of staff members everywhere. Rare indeed is the underling who is willing to take on greater risk than his superiors. The manager sets the tone for risk-taking.

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