A Bias for Bold Action

audacity-augments-courage-hesitation-fearI was recently invited to provide a Navy SEAL’s perspective to a conference on risk management.    As I was preparing my remarks, I realized that throughout my career in the Navy, “risk management” had been inherent in my duties as an officer and leader of audacious men in high risk operations, but I had never given the concept of risk management much thought.  I felt a little like the fellow who was amazed  to learn that he’d been speaking prose all his life and didn’t even know it!

In thinking about it, I realized how important risk management can be to proper planning and success, but also how, if given too much emphasis, it can inhibit bold action and throw sand into the gears of progress.

Risk management is certainly an important aspect of good planning and decision making – an organization should go into any endeavor with its eyes open, understanding what could go wrong and how to manage potential impacts.   Careful consideration of risk can help determine whether a plan has a reasonable chance of success, and whether potential benefits justify likely or even unlikely costs. All of that is indisputable.

But an over-emphasis on risk management can torpedo one of the most important factors in any plan’s success:  Bold, confident commitment to a plan. Too much attention to risk management can focus an organization on all that can go wrong, rather than on what should go well and what bold action is required to ensure that it does.

A focus on risk can infect a team’s confidence, and over-caution can lead to inaction, or taking half steps, or playing not-to-lose.  We’ve heard the catchphrase to: “Always hedge your bets,” and cautious admonitions to be prudent, play it safe, don’t expose yourself, leave yourself a way out, never over-commit.  This can be practical advice – especially to ensure you get at least “half a loaf.”  But, while the careful approach may sometimes be wise to ensure survival, it won’t promote bold, audacious action.   And it won’t inspire subordinates to truly commit to a plan.

In their seminal book, In Search of Excellence, Peters and Waterman repeatedly found that great corporations had what they called “a bias for action.”   They noted that “The most important and visible outcropping of the action bias in excellent companies is their willingness to try things out, to experiment…..Most big institutions… prefer analysis and debate to trying something out, and they are paralyzed by fear of failure, however small.”  This was true 30 years ago, and it remains true today.

When I was serving at the Naval Academy, I presented an out-of-the-box proposal to then- Superintendent Vice Admiral Rod Rempt, to create an opportunity for midshipmen to participate in National Outdoor Leadership School courses during the summer.  He responded that he didn’t think it was a good idea, that it didn’t fit, we’d never done anything like this before, midshipmen already had more options than they could manage, etc, but then he said (and I’ll never forget) “What the hell – let’s give it a try! How can I help?” Ten years later, over a quarter of midshipmen choose to challenge themselves for 24 days in the wilderness with NOLS every summer, and I give Rod Rempt a lot of the credit for his willingness to take a chance and support a subordinate leader’s initiative.

The bold leader inspires subordinates to believe in themselves, their team, their strategy, and their ability to get results.   Subordinates know a risky plan when they see it, and it’s important that they trust that their leaders have competently weighed the risks involved, and share in that risk.  But it is more important that they know their leaders are confident and committed to the success of the plan, and are ready to commit boldly to its execution – in spite of the risks. History is full of examples of committed and confident teams succeeding where success was deemed unlikely or impossible; there are also innumerable examples of timid leaders and teams snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  Napoleon pointed out that in war, morale is to material as three is to one.

But there can be a fine line between being bold and audacious, and being blind and fool-hardy.   The motto of the Navy Seabees is “Can Do,” but they also say “Too much ‘Can-Do’ can do you in.”  John Wayne once said, “Life is tough. It’s even tougher when you’re stupid.”   But I’m arguing against risk managers injecting too much “Can’t Do” into vision and planning.

Great leaders have a bias for bold action, but prudently manage risk. Excellent managers on the other hand, are expected to be the voice of prudence and caution, to be their organization’s risk managers, while still leaving room for experimentation and well-calculated audacity.   In my own career, I have played the role of the cautious manager, raising red flags when (what I perceived to be) irresponsible and dangerous ideas were being proposed and considered.    I have also been the bold, aggressive leader who my team routinely had to rein in, to make sure we didn’t get out in front of our own headlights.  When the balance is right between bold but prudent leaders, and cautious but confident managers, there are few limits to what an organization can accomplish.

I was recently asked to speak on how great leaders and teams respond to chaos and uncertainty.  In my remarks, I noted that bold leaders know that while chaos and uncertainty are dangerous and warrant caution, they also present great opportunities.  The bold, aggressive leader will carefully watch chaos, staying alert, agile, ready to neutralize threats, but also ready to strike when opportunities present themselves. While the bold leader is wary of the danger inherent in chaos, s/he keeps the front site focused on opportunity.

When the going gets tough, the bold leader stays focused on opportunity.  Chesty Puller, when told that the Chinese had him and his Marines surrounded in Korea, is reputed to have responded: “That simplifies the problem.  The bastards can’t get away from us now!”   He didn’t  (as far as I know) then ask his staff for a risk management plan. But a good chief of staff would have prepared one for him anyway!

“The credit belongs to the man <or woman> who strives valiantly; who spends himself in a worthy cause… who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid <risk managers> who neither know victory nor defeat.”  (Teddy Roosevelt, adjusted slightly…)

Manage risk, but always with a bias for bold action.


14 thoughts on “A Bias for Bold Action

  1. The blog is a brilliant examination of the role of a leader in any adventurous undertaking. Know the risk, manage it, utilizie it and lead with confidence that will be infectious


    • Thanks ‘Robert Francis’ trying to be a ‘bold leader’ working in the bureaucracy of the military poses its own set of challenges – given that bureaucracies are essentially risk management machines!


  2. Hi Bob – Another excellent post! Sometimes I forget that someone like you was also once in the ‘trenches’ like most of us are now…pitching ideas, making suggestions for improvements, etc. It can get discouraging when leaders don’t want to take ‘bold action’ because it might be seen as risky. Thanks for the pep talk…and for quoting Lt. Gen. Chesty Puller! 😉


    • Thanks Amy – Probably should have included LTG Puller’s rank, but what a great example it is for staying focused on positive opportunities that require bold action, when confronted with seemingly overwhelming challenges!


  3. As usual, I am in awe of your talent for writing interesting, informative and thought-provoking articles! I so agree that too much risk-management can stifle enterprise and I know from personal experience that it can also impede progress on an ongoing project and add to expense. I especially enjoyed reading the wise words of Roosevelt and laughed out loud at the quote from Lt. Gen Puller. Looking forward to your next post.


  4. Sandra – always love to hear from you from the wonderful world of the UK – so far from this almost Disney-land environment of San Diego. Thank you, as always for your comments and encouragement! Bob


  5. Great Post The movie Tin Cup comes to mind when I think about risk management. Go for the par 5 in two or lay up. Listen to your caddie or go for it.

    In the data center arena we are constantly evaluating the risk and developing back out procedures in the event your plan goes sideways because they will. You don’t want to be the guy who presses the button and everything goes dark and your next comment is good thing my resume is up to date. You need that back out plan to get up and running and fast. Thank you risk managers


  6. THanks Frank – I thought a lot about golf as I wrote that, and how judgment of one’s abilities, the conditions, how one is feeling/playing that day etc are key to whether one is bold, or risk averse. As in business, the objective is not just to win, but to win well. That said, who really enjoys winning when effectively, you didn’t lose – you were careful and the other guy went for it and it didn’t work out.
    We need risk-managers to help us recognize risk and therefore to help us bound it, so that we can take bold action wisely. If we always listen to the cautious caddy, or to the hand wringing lawyers, or to our wise but prudent grandmother, there is no sweetness in life, and we become those ‘timid risk managers who neither know victory nor defeat.’ Bob


    • Or how about the classic sports analogy when teams try to run out the clock and not be aggressive and then see the other team snatch victory away when they take some risks!
      In Navy speak we have developed Operational Risk Management which is a five step process to weed out unnecessary risk, which in the Navy’s defense is not meant to totally eliminate risk, just minimize it. Interesting to compare though that we don’t have a formal process or education path that promotes bold decision making or leaning too far forward, just a mentality to get the job done when it counts.

      -Bog Glavan


      • Bog – it’s an interesting balance. I was at one command where the leadership was pulling back on the reins, trying to keep the horses on the path, so to speak. At other commands we were having to cattle-prod them out of their comfort zones. The ‘sweet spot’ will be different for different people, different organizations, at different times and in different contexts. Which is what makes the topic so interesting. That said, when everyone is saying ‘be careful’ and our actions are driven by fear and caution, maybe that is the time to be looking for that bias for bold action. As Warren Buffet says – when everyone else is selling – that’s the time to buy! Bob


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