Posted by Russell Johnson
There are risks and costs to a program of action. But they are far less
than the long range risks of comfortable inaction.
John F. Kennedy
Occasionally, a client or prospective client will describe themselves to me as risk-averse.
That’s entirely reasonable on the face of it. A sensible level of risk aversion is necessary to a successful executive career, and to life in general.
Yet I have learned that the comment usually indicates an attitude toward risk that is creating a major obstacle to achieving their goals. In fact, it’s often made by high achievers who have accomplished a lot for others but far less for themselves.
The Implications of a Famous Experience
History has given John F. Kennedy a mixed report. Even his extraordinary heroism after the sinking of PT-109 (image above, with Kennedy on the right), the patrol boat he commanded until it was sunk by the Japanese in 1943, was tainted by the fact that he had allowed his swift vessel to be rammed by one four times its size.
But one point of general agreement is that he was confident. Perhaps this was in some way a result of that incredibly testing experience, since an unshakeable confidence seems to be a frequent attribute of the few who have come through such challenges.
No one would voluntarily go through an experience of that nature, and life doesn’t generally require it. So how can we build the confidence required by an executive career? Let’s look first at a factor that commonly undermines confidence.
Risk Aversion? Really?
Risk is an unavoidable aspect of life. Successful living lies in the ability to make sound decisions by balancing the risks of action with those of inaction.
So when I heard a young executive with the motivation and potential to become a CEO describe himself recently as risk-averse, we had a discussion there and then about the subject. I wanted to get the underlying reasons for the comment up to the surface, where their implications for the future he wants could be examined.
The Real Risks of the Risk Aversion Mindset
The problem is that a mindset of risk aversion is based on fear. It encourages timidity, which is a seriously career limiting trait. And it’s unrealistic, especially for an executive.
Whether consciously or not, my client was making a point about what has been holding his career back.
When it was held up to the light, he quickly saw the significance of his comment. He understands that his career objectives require sound decision-making skills, which require the ability and judgment to balance risk aversion with bold action.
Past experience suggests that we’ll need to work systematically on this in order to advance his career – and also that the outcome of doing so is very predictable. His bias toward risk aversion needs to be balanced by a bias for action. When this is well developed, his decision making skills will be strong and reliable. His confidence will be strong too, and he will be a more effective leader.
A Bias for Action is Key
Like timidity, over-confidence leads to undesirable consequences if it’s sustained in the face of a pattern of poor decisions. But for most executive roles, a bias for action is better than a bias for inaction.
Whereas risk aversion doesn’t require leaving the comfort zone, boldness does. Like a muscle, it needs exercise. It thrives when it receives it.
This builds decision-making skills. And confidence.
Both of which are rocket fuel for your career.
Building Your Bias for Action
If you’re not making some bold decisions, it’s a pretty safe bet your ‘boldness muscle group’ is in a state of atrophy. Allowing that situation to continue will rob you of more than anything you may gain from a focus on avoidance of risk.
A sensible exercise program is needed. As Virgil said two thousand years or so ago, fortune favours the bold.
In balancing risk aversion with boldness, remember that a focus on avoidance of risk can easily feed a habit of fearfulness. And while mistakes made out of boldness are unlikely to be fatal to your career aspirations, those made out of fear can be, because they will keep the giant within chained.
Mistakes made through timidity and fear can be hard to see in time to avoid major damage to your career; those made through boldness can be helpful, because you are likely to learn from them.
How to Expand Your Comfort Zone
By making decisions and committing yourself to challenges you didn’t know you could handle, you will take yourself out of your comfort zone.
And that’s the only way your comfort zone can be expanded.
You will grow because you won’t want to let yourself or others down. In fact, by choosing to make a lot of decisions and commit yourself to actions that are bold and difficult, you will learn very quickly indeed. This will increase your sense of personal power and develop your inclination to take on more challenges.
You can’t expand your comfort zone or increase your confidence by thinking about taking action. In fact, that can lead to ‘analysis paralysis’ and weaken your confidence.
You must take action.
Conceptually, it’s simple. It begins with understanding that there’s a reciprocal link between confidence and behaviour; just as your level of confidence affects your behaviour, your behaviour affects your confidence.
If your confidence is down and you want it back, the most direct way to get it is through a deliberate program of behaviour modification. Just as you can increase your strength through working out, or your flexibility through yoga, you can build your confidence through stretching your comfort zone.
Your greatest successes and satisfaction lie in mastering the self-defeating behaviours that keep you from doing so.
By making this a regular practice, you will increase your morale, zest for living and readiness to stretch. The payoff will become ever more apparent, satisfying and motivating.
And you’ll experience a further benefit in that it’s attractive. It’s an aspect of leadership partly because most people lack confidence and are attracted to those who radiate it.
If the development process seems daunting, remember there’s no need to go it alone. Most highly successful people have had strong support, coaching and mentoring at crucial times in their careers. If you think you might need some help, feel free to get in touch for a confidential discussion. I’ll also send you my free Special Report, How to Stop Wasting Your Life in the Wrong Role .. and Get the Future You Want!
There’s nothing wrong with seeking support when developing a new skillset. It will enable you to progress further and faster.
As you do, you’ll also experience the truth of the old proverbs ‘nothing succeeds like success’ and ‘the world stands aside for the person who knows where they’re going’.