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The Dangers Of Playing It Safe: Six Truths About Why And How Leaders Need To Take Risks

Leaders are risk-takers by definition. The act of leading involves guiding a team or organization through change with no guarantee of success, hoping to come out better on the other side. In short: Without risk, there’s no need for leaders. Here’s what I learned about leadership and smart, calculated decision-making through the innovative and transformative work that I believe we do at TIAG.

There are risks associated with doing nothing.

As Descartes once said, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” The decision not to explore and innovate is a decision to double down on running your business exactly as you have been. Is that the right choice? Maybe, but ask yourself: Do your customers’ needs ever change? Are you in an industry that’s subject to external forces like regulation or legislation? Are your competitors evolving to better meet their (i.e., your) customers’ needs?

In a world where technology can evolve rapidly, there’s a real business risk to being overly focused on the here and now without considering what could be. If you aren’t continuously working to raise the bar and remind your customers why you’re not only the right answer today but also the right answer for tomorrow and beyond then your competitor will.

When you’re complacent, you’re stagnant.

So much of our time is spent focused on daily projects and priorities that it’s easy to become complacent—to think that when those tasks are complete, our work is done. That mindset doesn’t allow us to develop new efficiencies or explore new areas of growth. Meeting deadlines and honoring our commitments is important, of course, but as a leader, you’re also tasked with anticipating both your customers’ needs and the direction of the industry and positioning your organization accordingly. That’s vital for your organization’s future. As a leader, you must look beyond the day-to-day routine and set a vision for the future.

Taking risks is the only way we grow.

Often, leaders are charged with helping grow the organization they lead. But how do you do that? By introducing a new product or service? Building up the capabilities of your staff? Developing new process efficiencies? All of these “disruptions” revolve around the same thing—introducing changes to a successful process that might not work out.

Getting comfortable with risk and doing what you can to shift the risk/reward equation in your favor (that is, by grounding decisions on what benefits your customers, instituting change slowly and with your staff’s buy-in, and soliciting feedback throughout the process) can be instrumental in growing your organization responsibly. If you aren’t uncomfortable (i.e., taking risks), then you aren’t growing personally or professionally.

There’s a difference between taking a calculated risk and acting recklessly.

The difference between success and failure will often come down to “why”—the reason you’re pursuing this change. The best way to determine if the risk you’re considering is worthwhile is to let your mission statement and your customers guide you. Focus on their needs (and the risks they’re taking) and how you can help meet them. Any change that could solve a client problem or help you pursue your company mission more effectively is worth considering.

Listen to your intuition, but don’t trust it.

Intuition, when driven by your experience and understanding of your industry, can be a powerful and useful asset. But intuition can be wrong, and it doesn’t get you out of doing the work.

If your intuition is guiding you toward a particular action, listen to it. Conduct customer and competitor research. Talk with your team about what could be possible. (And dig deeper into what’s informing your intuition: Is it founded on customer or industry insight you haven’t fully considered, or is it fueled by a personal bias you have about the world?) It’s easy to dismiss an idea based on your intuition, but the reality is this: Ignoring your intuition can be just as risky as acting on it. You owe it to yourself and your company to follow it up.

Be ready to make mistakes.

You won’t introduce any new product, process or service seamlessly on the first try—even the most thoughtful rollout will run into snags. Managing your and your team’s expectations is critical: If done well, it can keep your team engaged in your new idea and, just as importantly, keep your idea’s critics from ending your exploration too soon. Mistakes are part of the process—if you learn from them, they get you one step closer to your ultimate goal.

One last thought on leadership and risk-taking: When trying something new, it’s especially critical to understand what indicators you’re measuring and to get accurate and honest feedback. That can tell you what’s worth keeping, what should be scrapped and what only needs some tweaks to become a serviceable idea. I hope these learnings can help you on your own leadership journey!

Previously published on Forbes.