All you really need to know about courage and risk in your career

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on October 19, 2011 · 3 comments

Sam Walton was fired as a J.C. Penny store manager before starting WalMart. Countless world champion coaches were fired before reaching the ultimate prize.

So many individuals want to do more, push harder, say what’s on their mind, and take some risks. But something’s stopping them. But it’s the courage and risk-taking that leads to breakthrough ideas, to fantastic gains, and to overall greatness.

Recently in a short interview in the October 2011 issue of Harvard Business Review, Francis Ford Coppola said, “the things you get fired for when you’re young are the same things you win lifetime achievement awards for when you’re older.”

Sometimes you need to keep on the pursuit and the recognition only comes after a while. While I was at DTE Energy, I brought in a mentor mine for a case study discussion with the executive team. While driving him back to the airport, he recommended that I quit. He didn’t believe the leadership team had the commitment to make it work, and that I would therefore be wasting my time and talents. The easy thing to do would be to stop pushing. The right and hard thing to do was push. DTE Energy is now 13 years into their lean journey, and continuing to pursue grand challenges.

Why aren’t we more willing to take these risks? Out of a fear, whether it is emotional or professional. The emotional risk is under-appreciated, but very real. There is a great book on the subject called The Heart Aroused by poet David Whyte. An example from the book is an executive sitting at the table with the senior management team listening to the CEO’s plan. He doesn’t like the plan. When the CEO asks for everyone’s degree of support on a scale of 1-10, he listens as it goes around the room with everyone declaring a “10” in support. He’s ready and committed to saying “1” because he believes it is wrong. But when it comes to his turn, a quiet “10” squeaks from his mouth. He lost his courage at the key moment.

Professional risk, and the fear of being fired, is equally real. It is very rare that I’ve seen people fired for doing the right, but unpopular, work, such as pushing lean when no one seems ready for it. Don’t get me wrong; I have seen it happen. But it is so infrequent that I still remember each cases’ name. You must do what you can to protect against this risk, and that will prepare you to live your career with more courage. It might be living frugally so that you have a cash cushion, or maintaining your network so that you know who to call if you do lose your job. The more proactively you protect against this risk, the more you can speak your mind when the moment requires the courage.

Much of this can be explored in what I’ve written and spoken about as my 1-Minute Leadership Lesson. It’s just 3 questions that don’t give you the answer, but help you get past just exploring ideas by exploring the contributors to your actions, including the required courage. The 3 questions are:

1. What is the vision of what you think needs to happen in the organization?
2. What are you willing to do, sacrifice, or risk to make that happen?
3. What stands in the way of doing that today

This is probably not a way to start each day, but when you’re feeling stuck, or frustrated, they might help you reflect on what you need to be doing?

How do you manage the balance in your risk and reward in leadership?

1 Robert Drescher October 19, 2011 at 2:47 pm

A great Piece Jamie.

To many people think that just because they face oppostion, or they disagree they shouod lay down and give up. When ever I faced a situation in which I disagreed with what was being done, I respectfully made my point, about why I disagreed. If my bosses still want it done their way I did as ordered, but they knew that I cared enough to make a point to help improve an operation. Often many of my ideas found their way into the operation overtime, after all nothing is ever perfect.

But the biggest single threat we face in business is group think that never challenges or pushes fresh ideas. As long as you share your ideas with your boss and respect his decisions you can live to eventually gain their respect and approval for your ideas. Shutting up and being a yes man just means sooner or later you set yourself up to be the scape goat, or being replaced by a cheaper yes man.

Being an alternate opinion that will co-operate with decisions, makes you an asset, and will eventually earn you respect from good leaders, and if your not working for good leaders nothing you do is worth while anyway.

2 John Hunter October 20, 2011 at 3:45 am

I have normally lived my professional career without worrying about risk. I have felt that if I had to move because things happened, then I would. I didn’t have to avoid risk for fear of the consequences. I’ll say that is a very nice way to live. For a period (about 6 months) when looking for a new job and having a bit of difficulty I started to worry a bit about the consequences of losing the job. That wasn’t any fun.

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