What Do You Miss if You Don’t Take a Risk?

We read many articles today about the critical part that failure plays in an individual’s success.  I am not saying that you are successful if you fail – what I am saying is that taking the risks and embracing the failures from those risks that maybe didn’t pan out will place you on the path toward success.

Take a look back on your career and ask yourself, “When have I failed?”  If your answer is  “Never”, you:

  • Are incredibly lucky (which I don’t think anyone is all that lucky),
  • Are not being honest with yourself (you see failure as a negative), or
  • Have never “jumped out there” and taken a risk.

Risk RewardI am a fan of risk taking.  Not the Evil Knievel jumping the Grand Canyon type of risk or the putting your company or country at risk for your own personal gain, but the educated, well thought out steps into the unknown that result in a change to the status quo.  For you see, that is what risk taking does.  Regardless of the venture’s success or failure, one becomes a bit different as each risk is taken.

So – what do you miss if you stay in the “safe zone”?

1.   Learning

Every new endeavor comes with lessons.  Think back to the adage, “What did you get when you didn’t get what you wanted?”  Yes – all together now … “Experience.”  And that experience equates to learning.  What worked?  What didn’t work?  How will I improve next time?  What will I NOT do again?

2.  An Enhancement of Your Self Confidence

If you don’t try, you won’t know if you can do it or not.  And if you try, you will either succeed (and therefore feel much better about yourself) or fail (and therefore learn from it [see #1 above]).  It is truly a “win-win.”

Sometimes being forced is the best way to take a risk.   Case in point:

A few years ago I participated in a team-building workshop with approximately 20 other colleagues.  I had worked with these folks for several years and knew them all well – at least in an office/classroom environment.  I was invited to join the group for an outdoor team-building event.  I was feeling very confident since I had just completed a similar event (so I thought) and I quickly said yes (self-assured that “I already knew the answers.”)

Fast forward to the day of the workshop.  First warning sign that “trouble” might be brewing:  our start time was 5:30 am on a Saturday.  (My philosophy:  sleep is the ONLY activity that should be occurring at 5:30 am on a Saturday morning!)  Second warning sign:  each participant was asked by the company facilitating the event to sign a waiver.  (Hmmmm.)  Third warning sign:  we hop on a bus and drive for a couple of hours to reach the event location – tucked in the mountains of central Puerto Rico.  And then – it started to rain.

I will spare you the graphic details.  But I will say that I experienced close to every human emotion that exists.  This workshop was not the calm, subdued event I had just experienced. (You know, the one for which I had all the answers.)  Instead, it was filled with team challenges – with each seeming to be more difficult than the previous.  The backward trust fall, scaling a wall, being passed through a rope web, a team plank walk in the mud … and for the final challenges … a zip line and then rappelling down a 250-foot cliff.  And all of this happened as it rained and rained and rained.

The team activities (up to the zip line challenge) buoyed my confidence in “the spirit of team.”  However the zip line and rappelling were solo acts.  No team member to share the load.  I was committed now and there was no turning back (regardless of what my brain was telling me.)  I had to take the first step into the “risk arena.”  “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” I asked myself.  Well, it’s best not to recall my answer.

RappellingSo off I went on the zip line.  Not the smoothest or fastest ride … but I did it!  Not knowing what was next, I basked in my increased self-confidence.  Then, turning the corner, I faced the rappelling activity.  Again with a deep breath and an anxious look at my cheering colleagues 250 feet below, I angled out over the edge.  As I focused on maintaining the proper position, I realized I was doing it.  I was rappelling!

I will be the first to say that I never would have knowingly volunteered to do this.  But I am so happy I completed the activities.  The rush of adrenaline from overcoming my fear buoyed me for the rest of the day and beyond.

I wasn’t the best or the fastest that day, but I certainly did learn and my confidence grew.  Taking a risk leads to increased self confidence which leads to taking another risk which leads to further increased self confidence, etc., etc., etc.  It’s a perpetual cycle.

3.  Opportunities for Personal and Professional Growth

To achieve your long-range plans – to meet your objectives – to fulfill your mission, you must take risks.

No Risk = Status Quo

If you want the future to look different than today, you must take the risks that will get you there.  To earn a promotion, added responsibilities, an increase in salary, or an opportunity to lead a new project, risk taking is required.  You must step outside of your comfort zone.  You must prepare yourself to trust that first step and then to realize that propelling yourself forward will result in your fulfillment.

Holding yourself back IS holding you back.

Take a risk.  Be open to feedback.  Embrace failure if it didn’t work out as you expected it to and then try again – in a new and improved way.

For the risk averse, how do you start?

  1. Take small steps.  Challenge yourself to complete one activity that you believe is risky.  You may be successful – you may not be.  But keep on going.  Analyze the results of the first risky step – then move to the second – and then the third.  Don’t bite off a huge piece of risk at the beginning.  Small risks add up.  Soon your comfort level increases to bigger risks.
  2. Volunteer to do something out of your comfort zone.  Mentally prepare for this activity by doing a visioning exercise or rehearsing.  Answer the question, “what’s the worst that could happen?”  Running through those scenarios will help you realize that even failing will not be detrimental or “earth shattering.”
  3. Celebrate the act of risk taking.  Acknowledge your progress.  Look back at your growth.  Take pride in your accomplishments.

Leaders take risks.  Some might work – some might not.  That’s ok.  Leaders take risks.

As Theodore Roosevelt said during his April 1920 speech at the Sorbonne in Paris, France:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; 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 souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

–       Excerpted from “Citizenship In A Republic



Hoover Dam: A Study in Creativity, Innovation, and Vision

I had the spectacular opportunity to visit the Hoover Dam in early February 2012.  While gazing down on the Colorado River on one side and Lake Mead on the other, I could not help but wonder about the minds and leadership skills of the people who determined that this dam would solve problems created by a raging river … and that construction of this structure could be accomplished regardless of water, mountains, and rock.  Was the design and building of the Hoover Dam a result of the “leadership elements” of creativity, innovation, and vision?

An example of collaboration of state and federal governments and private enterprises, the construction of the Hoover Dam is a marvel of engineering embedded in the magnificence of a vast vista.  (Photos do not do it justice!)

The structure is 726.4 feet high; 1,244 feet across at the top; 660 feet thick at the base; 45 feet thick at the top; weighs 6.6 million tons and contains 3.25 million cubic yards of concrete in the dam, itself – not counting the concrete in the other structures.

The dam was built to serve a four-fold purpose:  flood control; regulation of irrigation flow; power generation; and silt storage.

With a $49,000,000 contract award to Six Companies Incorporated, work began on the construction of the dam in April 1931.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the dam in September 1935.  Operation of the first power generator began October 1936.  Five years to create “one of the seven modern civil engineering wonders of the United States” – as named by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1955.  (By the way, the dam was completed ahead of schedule and under budget.)

So where did creativity and innovation come in to play?  Some examples –

  • The creation of Boulder City, Nevada – the company town where 80 percent of the company employees lived during the construction period; designed as a model company town with green space and recreational areas.
  • The drilling of four huge tunnels through solid rock in order to divert the Colorado River around the dam site while excavation for the foundation was underway and until the massive concrete barrier was partially erected.
  • Construction of 30 miles of railroad track (a private and federal government collaboration) for the transportation of materials and equipment.
  • The use of a refrigeration plant to cool the poured concrete reducing the concrete cooling period from 125 years to 20 months and enabling the grout to be poured without threat of the dam cracking.
  • The building and use of ten aerial cableways spanning the Black Canyon constructed to transport men, materials and machinery up and down canyon walls.
  • The power plant construction process where the structure was erected with materials lowered from 600 feet above the ground instead of being raised from ground level.

Should you be thinking … “So what?  This was just a construction project.”  … remember the climate – remember the location – remember the times.

And who were the visionaries?  I am sure many contributed.  However, three stand out to me.

  •  Arthur P. Davis, Director of the U. S. Reclamation Service in 1918, proposed the concept of controlling the Colorado River through the building of a dam in Boulder or Black Canyons between the Arizona-Nevada borders.  He envisioned the possibility of power as an aid to enterprise, and he proposed a dam of unprecedented height and a reservoir of unprecedented capability.
  • Frank T. Crowe, general superintendent of Six Companies Incorporated, was responsible for carrying through the details of the contract.  A veteran dam builder, this was Crowe’s biggest challenge.
  • S. R. DeBoer, landscape architect from Denver, Colorado, was commissioned to design Boulder City.  His original plan to have a “garden city” was looked upon with derision, but later implemented in 1932 by landscaper William Weed.

Visitors to the Hoover Dam view monuments on the Nevada side honoring the dam’s designers, builders, and workers.  Etched onto the stone base of the American flag is the following dedication quote:

 “It is fitting that the flag of our country should fly here in honor of those men who, inspired by a vision of lonely lands made fruitful, conceived this great work and of those others whose genius and labor made that vision a reality.”

I’d be interested to know if you agree with the Hoover Dam as an example of creativity, innovation and vision.  And – what are your examples of these three “leadership elements” at work?


  • The Story of the Hoover Dam.  Booklets compiled from Compressed Air Magazine, 1931-1935.  Las Vegas, Nevada:  Nevada Publications.