If you’ve ever attempted to get people to work together on a difficult challenge, you know that leadership is risky. We drive home this principle as both a warning and encouragement. Even as you do everything you can to energize others to solve a big challenge, pay attention and build your skill at minimizing risks.
Progress on our most important challenges always require people to change, to experience loss, so they can move forward. In whatever system you work or volunteer, you and others have cocreated ways of engaging and functioning that work well enough to get the daily tasks done and, at least for now, keep the lights on and the doors open. People have their ways of doing things.
Leadership involves mobilizing people to let go of habits and norms that no longer serve them. Most people would rather put off hard and uncomfortable things. Trying to change things—even if the end goal is to make things better for everyone—takes will and courage.
But, with some attention, you can mitigate the risks that come with leadership. Here are a few tips for limiting your risk.
- Pace your efforts. Disappoint your own people at a rate they can handle.
- Be as consistent and dependable as you can. Don’t completely upend key people’s expectations of you.
- Get feedback from trusted mentors on your possible interventions before you try them.
- Admit your part of the mess first (and often).
- Affirm people for wanting to jump to action even as you encourage them to spend more time in diagnosis.
If you look at people who are most effective at tackling tough problems, you’ll notice they have leadership skills that allow them to minimize, if not eliminate, risk. They’ve learned to Diagnose Situation, Energize Others, Intervene Skillfully and Manage Self. They practice those skills every day. You can do the same. Surround yourself with people who understand that leadership is about our toughest challenges, watch how they intervene and use them as models. The more you practice, the less risky leadership becomes.