“Risk is a potent catalyst that can fuel opportunity.” – Army Field Manual 3-0 (2008)
When Star Trek: Generations first aired in movie theaters in 1994, my boys and I made the hourlong drive to Geilenkirchen airbase from our home in Belgium to see the film. We bought our popcorn, stood for the national anthem, then settled into our seats for a trek into the final frontier. Not long after the opening scene, the story transitioned from the crew of the USS Enterprise-D to the crew of the USS Enterprise-B, on her maiden voyage under the command of Captain John Harriman. That voyage, intended largely for publicity purposes, soon took a classic Star Trek dramatic turn, with characters from the original series called into action one last time to answer a distress call deep in space. In the midst of a chaotic bridge scene where issues of life and death hang in the balance, Captain James Kirk looks to Harriman and reminds him, “Risk is part of the game if you want to sit in that chair.”
At the time, I was a young company commander with barely seven years in uniform. But the quote—like more than a few others—resonated with me. While it was a perfect “made for Hollywood” line from the screenplay, it struck a chord. Even as a relatively junior leader, I had already come to view risk as an inevitability of command. When you’re selected to lead an organization, you’re expected to make important (and a lot of unimportant) decisions. Kirk’s simple statement captured one of the essential aspects of leadership: if you want to command, you need to embrace the risk that comes with it.
In reality, however, I saw far more leaders who were risk averse and either unwilling or unable to accept the risk that came with leadership. In a 2019 article, journalist Lydia Denworth explained the psychology of this behavior. When it comes to risk, our brains are in a constant struggle: “The right hemisphere pushes us toward risk and left pulls us away from it.” The decision-making process contending with risk reach deep into the brain, with internal biases often determining the final outcome of the tug-of-war.
As leaders, overcoming those biases takes time and effort. You have to first get comfortable with being uncomfortable. If you’re a natural gambler, you want to temper some of that tendency to take unnecessary risks. On the other hand, if you’re risk averse, you want to learn how to control the “fight or flight” response that comes with making risky decisions. Second, you need to have a process or model for decision-making that considers risk but maintains positive control over it. Then you have to get used to using it. Ultimately, you’re rewiring your brain to overcome your biases, and that will come with practice.
Risky Business: The Model
In a blog post earlier this year, journalist, author, and podcaster Scott Young discussed a good model for making risky decisions that focuses on four distinct—but related—areas:
1. What is your baseline likelihood of success?
Do you even need to accept any additional risk? If you can succeed without assuming more risk, then don’t. If, on the other hand, accepting added risk increases your chance of success or creates opportunities that could offer a decisive advantage, then you should consider that risk.
2. What additional information do you have to help in your decision?
If you’re going to make a risky decision, then you want to have the best information possible before making that decision. And, if possible, use that information to improve your chance of success while reducing your chance of catastrophic failure accordingly. You won’t ever have perfect knowledge of the situation, so you have to be comfortable with some degree of ambiguity.
3. What are your options if you achieve less-than-ideal results?
While you hope for the best, the associated risk might leave you short of your goal. Understanding what that means and what follow-on actions could be necessary is part of the risk calculus. There are varying degrees of success—and failure—so be prepared. Think the situation through thoroughly.
4. What are the potential costs of accepting the risk?
If you meet with wild success, this is less of an issue. But if things don’t go as planned, you might find yourself answering for your decisions. Do the benefits outweigh the risk? Or does the risk pose such a threat that you’re really just gambling on success? And, even if you’re successful, there may be consequences to your decision. Again, be prepared. Think it through.
Kirk was right. Risk is part of the game if you want to sit in that chair. That doesn’t mean you have to fear the risk, and it doesn’t mean you have to avoid it. It means you have to respect the risk that presents itself and understand how to embrace and exploit it. As long as you lead, risk will present itself. Get used to it.