I 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.