Today’s post is the feature article  from the October 2004 issue of  The Front Porch Newsletter.  If you would like to automatically receive The Front Porch e-newsletter on the last Thursday of each month just click here to sign-up for your complimentary subscription.

blumbergface1Many people would consider RISK to be a dirty four- letter word. But the greatest accomplishments in the world can almost always be traced back to someone taking a risk. We often don’t see it that way. Once something is successful — the depth of courage and risk, originally demanded, quickly fade into the background.

Fred Smith took a huge risk when he started FedEx. On the first day of operation, I am sure it seemed overwhelming to sit in a hanger in Little Rock, AK with six planes and only three packages to deliver. Federal Express was my first client assignment as I began my auditing career just out of college. Even then, Fred Smith knew every employee by name. The daily package counts were manually posted on hallway signs to motivate the troops for success. It was still risky. Today, I doubt even the FedEx employees sitting right in the heart of their primary hub in Memphis, have an appreciation of the courage and risk that Fred Smith had to endure to enable them to have the opportunities they have today.

Columbus took a risk. The Signers of the Declaration of Independence took a risk. Walt Disney took a risk. Bill Gates took a risk. Our nation was built on the backs of entrepreneurs willing to take a risk. The very fabric of the culture of the pioneers of America was made of courage, boldness and risk. But, with later generations and immigrants who have been handed down the blessings of that courage and sacrifice, have we become fat and happy?

One of the biggest obstacles to risk-taking is when the potential risk-taker has too much to lose. The other obstacle is the lack of ability to stomach sacrifice. Every person listed above had to sacrifice. It wasn’t viewed as a negative, but rather the very nature of their endeavor.

Risk is a very relative term. What seems like a huge risk for some is a cake-walk for others. By the very nature of our natural instincts, some are more prone — or more accurately stated — have a need to take risks.

I am convinced that risk-taking gets a bad name. It seems to be tagged more irresponsible than heroic. And there are certainly cases where risks that were taken were quite irresponsible. But irresponsibility has nothing to do with the risk. Risk in itself is neutral. We are the ones who make it a positive or negative experience. It has to do with the approach to the risk.

The key foundation for taking a risk begins with two critical questions. The first question — is the proposed risk in alignment with the values and vision for your organization? These two filters should be the first test as to whether the risk is meaningful and worth it. And if you don’t have a set of values and a vision that is intentionally engaged in every aspect of your organization, then you have just discovered your biggest risk!! Risk is about stretching yourself — – not about random and reckless behavior. The second question — is the anticipated rewards of the risk worth the resources required to take the risk?

Last month we asked our Front Porch readers about risk. Remembering that risk is in the eyes of the beholder, they seem to be a risky group! Ninety- eight percent felt risk was required for both personal and organizational growth. The majority “like” risk, but certainly don’t thrive on it. How do you compare to their response?

The following BEST describe me:
2% — I THRIVE on risk
64% — I LIKE risk
29% — I TOLERATE risk
5% — I HATE risk

In the last 6 months (checking ALL that apply) I have taken:
53% — At least one BOLD risk
47% — At least one MEDIUM risk
18% — At least one SLIGHT risk
7% — It has been RISK-FREE for me

Risk-taking in my organization is:
18% — Required
40% — Encouraged
25% — Tolerated
11% — Discouraged
0% — Punished
7% — Our talk supports it, but our actions don’t support our talk

Following the challenges of the post “dot-com” era, risk is:
9% — Encouraged MORE
38% — Encouraged LESS
53% — About the SAME

In working with my own Direct Reports:
62% — I WANT them to take risks
2% — I DON’T WANT them to take risks
36% — I don’t have Direct Reports at this time

ACTION IDEA: In the next two weeks, take some time to do some “risky reflection”. Assess your own risk tolerance. Think about where you are taking risks that you really shouldn’t and reassess your approach. More importantly, think about where you are holding back and playing it safe — where you really need to step up with some boldness and courage.